The dawn of feminism
Middle-class women had first gained valuable experience of political organization and political campaigning in the 1840s in the Anti-Corn Law League. Although anti-slavery campaigning never politicized British women as much as American women, there is some evidence that women from anti-slavery families in Britain began to link abolitionism to the emancipation of their own sex in the years following the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840. Among the four American women delegates was the influential Quaker, Lucretia Mott. But after a lengthy debate, the women were excluded from the debates. Mott went on to become a prominent figure in the Seneca Falls Convention, 1848.
One group of friends who took a particular interest in the 1840 convention also went on to take a pioneering role in calling for women rights. They included Quakers and Unitarians. From the mid 1850s, Florence Nightingale's illegitimate cousin, Barbara Leigh Smith (1827-1901) and her close friend Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925), a grandaugher of Joseph Priestley, began to rouse public debate over a range of issues concerning the rights of women: education, employment opportunities and family law. This last question led Leigh Smith to form a committee in pursuit of Parliamentary reform of the marriage laws, especially those laws that limited a married woman’s right to own property.
A circle of women was established round Leigh Smith and Rayner Parks, and this was subsequently given focus by the provision of meeting rooms in London, in Langham Place. A vehicle of communication was established, the English Woman’s Journal. The editorship was eventually taken over by Emily Davies (1830-1921), who later became the first Principal of Girton.
The demand for women’s suffrage
In the early 1860s a debating group was formed, called the Kensington Society, which provided women with experience in preparing papers and speaking before an audience. It was in a Kensington Society debate that the question of women’s right to vote was first raised among this circle. The women found a supporter in John Stuart Mill, who was elected as MP for Westminster in 1865. In the debates on the 1867 Reform Act, he introduced an amendment allowing for women householders to vote on the same terms as men. In the same year the first women’s suffrage committee was founded. One of the leading members was Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1912) the wife of the blind MP Henry Fawcett. In 1868 she made her first public speech on the subject.
In the election which followed (1868) a number of Lancashire women with the necessary qualifications cast their vote. The returning officer moved their vote invalid. The suffragists then took a test case to the courts, and among their advisors was a young Manchester lawyer, Richard Pankhurst. In 1870 he drafted the first woman’s suffrage bill, which was introduced by two Radical-Liberals, Charles Dilke and Jacob Bright. This was rejected but Bright secured an amendment to the Municipal Corporations Act of 1869 which gave women with the appropriate property qualifications the right to vote in municipal elections. In 1870 it was also established that women might both vote and serve on the new local school boards. This was the first formal entry of women into public life.
The early suffrage movement was divided over the question of whether or not to include married women in the suffrage demand. The question arose because of the common-law disability of coverture, which debarred a married woman from exercising the vote if the franchise depended on a property qualification. The dilemma meant that demands for the vote were entwined with demands for a reform in the legal position of married women.
Since the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 women had been allowed to sue for divorce, though not on the grounds of adultery alone.
The Act of 1870 allowed married women to own their own wages and earnings, certain investments, and property inherited as next of kin of an intestate. They were allowed to inherit personal property of a value of less than £200 under a deed of will but no more. But from the late 1870s a string of judicial decisions showed that the act was not working as intended. In particular a magistrate in Manchester ruled that a wife could not sue her husband for stealing her property even when they had received a judicial separation.
The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 extended the rules of equity to all married women’s property and was a triumph for the argument that the protection offered to the rich should be offered to the poor. But this was not the same as giving married women the same rights as men, which did not happen until 1935. By preserving (until then) a series of trusts the wealthy classes were able to opt out of a reformed common law (following the Judicature Act) which gave married women considerably more freedom than they had previously enjoyed. In this way rich and poor continued to be governed by different systems. Politicians were reluctant to accept that their own homes should be affected by changes to women’s rights. The married women’s property acts harmonized well with the Victorian desire to improve the morals of the poor.
Protection of a different kind was provided by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1858, which allowed a woman beaten by her husband to apply for a separation order (though this was often refused).
In 1891 the case of Regina v. Jackson overturned an earlier ruling that a husband cannot legally detain his wife in his house. Two years earlier Ibsen’s Doll’s House had played to crowded and excited audiences in London.
What these measures have in common is a recognition by parliamentarians of masculine bad behaviour – but primarily among the working classes. But it was also problematic because of fears that they would cause discord in the home. There was no place in Victorian ideology for disputes between husbands and wives.
Educational reform began in the 1840s, stimulated by a variety of factors, including the rising wealth and expectations of the middle class, the belief that the mother as the first educator of her children needed a sound education and an increase in the number of middle-class unmarried women.
In 1848 Queen’s College in Harley Street and Bedford College (founded by the Unitarian, Elizabeth Reid) were founded.
1850 saw the foundation of the North London Collegiate School by Miss Frances Buss (1827-94); in 1854 Cheltenham Ladies College was founded; the second principal was Miss Dorothea Beale (1831-1906).
1871: Maria Grey set up the National Union for Improving the Education of Women.
1872: the Girls’ Public Day School Trust established.
There were tremendous obstacles, both social and cultural in the way of higher education for women. In the early 1860s Emily Davies turned her attention to getting girls to sit Cambridge University Local Examinations. She met constant resistance. In 1869 she and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon founded a college at Hitchin, on the grounds that it was almost as near London as Cambridge, and that if Cambridge did not adopt it, London might. The initial five students took exactly the same Cambridge exams as the men (the Little-Go followed by the Tripos) - this was an important point of principle. But the college situation was awkward. In May 1872 the articles of association for Girton College were founded, and Emily Davies was nominated Secretary. In October 1873 the students arrived at a half finished building.
Others contested the Girton argument that the women should take the same exams as the men. At Leeds in 1867 Anne Jemima Clough (1820-92) helped establish the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, whose president was Josephine Butler. The Council developed the system that came to be known as ‘university extension’ - a lecture programme for women and special university-based examinations which would give an entry into teaching. When she became the first principal of Newnham College (1871) she was prepared to accept special provisions for women. As a result, Newnham attracted more students than Girton - though Emily Davies also insisted that they had sold the pass.
Newnham arose out of a series of ‘Lectures for Ladies’ which had been started in Cambridge in 1870. The (blind) professor of economics was Henry Fawcett, MP for Brighton, and husband of Elizabeth Garrett (1847-1912). Their circle in Cambridge included the philosopher, Henry Sidgwick. In 1871 Sidgwick rented a house in Cambridge in which young women attending the lectures could reside. He persuaded Anne Jemima Clough, who had previously run a school in the Lake District to take charge of this house. A purpose-built building, Newnham Hall, opened in 1875. Unlike Girton, which was run on Anglican lines, Newnham had no chapel.
In 1879 Somerville College and Lady Margaret Hall were founded. The first Principal of LMH was Elizabeth Wordsworth, daughter of Bishop Christopher Wordsworth. The moving spirits were Edward Talbot, Warden of Keble and his wife Lavinia, daughter of Lord Lyttleton and niece of Mrs Gladstone. In 1884 Oxford voted to admit women to examinations but not degrees.
The resistance to the higher education of women came from a number of groups including (a) doctors who insisted that female students’ health would suffer from serious study (b) parents who feared that their daughters’ lives would be radically transformed.
But in spite of these arguments, higher education for women expanded. In 1878 London University admitted women to degrees on the same terms as men and none of the newly chartered Victorian and Edwardian universities drew sexual distinctions. By 1900 there were 1,476 full-time female students in England and another 1,194 in Scotland and Wales – to say nothing of the hundreds enrolled in teachers’ training colleges. In 1882 a Girton graduate, Constance Maynard, became the first Principal of Westfield, with the support of Lord Shaftesbury. Yet in 1881 women at Cambridge University were allowed only to sit the degree examinations on the same terms as men, but not be awarded degrees.
In 1890, there was a great sensation when Mrs Fawcett’s daughter, Philippa, was ranked above the Senior Wrangler - but she was not awarded the honour! (But in 1897 the proposal to admit women to degrees was rejected. It was only in 1947 that women in Cambridge were awarded degrees on the same terms as men.) Three years late Alice Cooke became the first woman to be appointed to a university teaching post – at Owen’s College, Manchester.
The entry into the professions
Women had a tremendous struggle to enter medicine. Professor Edward Clarke opposed women’s entry into medicine because he thought that such intellectual work would reduce the supply or nervous energy to the female reproductive system, producing
‘monstrous brains and puny bodies; abnormally active cerebration and abnormally weak digestion; flowing thought and constipated bowels’.The English psychiatrist Henry Maudsley thought the over-expenditure of vital energy in mental activity by women would cause menstrual derangements leading to hysterial, epilepsy and chorea.
Elizabeth Garrett, later Anderson (1836-1917) found that she was only accepted by one medical school, the Company of Apothecaries (because their charter meant that they were unable to refuse any candidate who complied with their conditions). In 1870, just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, she took her MD degree in Paris. In 1873 she was admitted to the BMA.
In 1868 Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) began a regular course of medical study in New York under Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, but was recalled home by the death of her father. She then began to seek medical education at home but found that all avenues were closed to her. After being refused by the University of London, she turned to Edinburgh where her second application was successful. Regulations were made for the admission of women and for their instruction ‘for the profession of medicine’ in separate classes. Five women matriculated at Edinburgh in 1869 but in 1873 they lost the last of a series of legal actions and were debarred from completing their studies. In 1874 Jex-Blake founded the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1877 the London (afterwards the Royal) Free Hospital opened its doors to women students. In the previous year (August 1876) all medical bodies were empowered to examine women, although the Irish college of Physicians was the first to use the power. Meanwhile Jex-Blake had qualified at Berne. In 1877 she gained the right to practise in Britain and in 1878 she settled in Edinburgh. In 1892-3 the BMA admitted women, though by 1900 there were only 434 women licensed to practise as doctors.
The breakthrough into the professions should not be exaggerated. In 1881 there were 25 female medical doctors, but in 1901 there were still only 212 (compared with 22,000 male doctors). There were no women barristers of solicitors – though in 1906 Christabel Pankhurst graduated with a law degree (First Class) from Victoria University (Manchester), having been refused admission by Lincoln’s Inn .
The employment of women was very much a question of class. Those women graduates who entered the professions overwhelmingly became teachers. In the 1850s elementary teaching was an essentially working-class occupation. But from the 1850s it came to be dominated by lower middle-class women. In 1861 there were 80,000 female teachers, in 1891 150,000.
The great expansion of female employment was in the lower middle-class white-collar occupations, such as clerks and shop assistants. (See other blog.)
Women and politics
The male-dominated political parties put forward contradictory messages in their attempts to attract women to their cause. The Conservative party was ambivalent in its attitude, and their appeal to the popular vote emphasised the male pursuits of ‘football, racing and beer’. But in 1883 the Conservatives founded the Primrose League. This was a political and social society designed to appeal to all strata of society. It soon boasted almost 2 million members and became a formidable force, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of its female members, who became involved in electioneering after the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 prohibited the payment of election agents. Tory women were organized in their own Ladies Grand Council. However, it was always stressed that the Council was to play a ‘backroom’ role. One of the first ‘Dames’ of the League was Lady Randolph Churchill, who canvassed the Woodstock election for her husband in 1885. But in spite of her high profile role in politics, Lady Randolph was opposed to votes for women.
The Liberals formed local Women’s Liberal Associations throughout the country during the 1880s and joined together in the Women’s Liberal Federation in 1887. The Bristol branch of the WLA, established in 1881 by Anna Maria Priestman and Emily Sturge, was especially feminist. But disagreements among Liberals came to a head in 1892 when Gladstone declared his opposition to women’s suffrage.
The fear I have is, lest we should invite her unwittingly to trespass upon the delicacy, the purity, the refinement, the elevation of her own nature, which are the present sources of its power.This was not the only reason why many Liberals opposed women’s suffrage. Some argued that the proposal to give women the vote on the same terms as men would simply extend household suffrage and tip the scales further against working-class men.
The three main socialist groups established in the 1880s and 1890s - the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party - were unusual in opening their membership to women on the same basis as men. But this involved a dilemma: which should be stressed, class oppression or gender oppression? In practice, priority was given to economic rather than gender questions. However, the ILP provided a platform for women: middle-class lecturers spread not only socialism but feminism among working-class women. At the same time Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, both middle-class socialists, made women’s suffrage into a trade union matter by linking it with women’s work and women’s wages.
The most consistent supporter of women’s suffrage was the Co-operative Women’s Guild. It began as a conservative movement, insisting that woman’s place was in the home and trying to avoid the antagonism roused by women’s rights. However after 1889, when Margaret Llewellyn Davies, a nice of Emily Davies and a staunch feminist, became General Secretary, it was quick to change its role. A suffrage petition was organized as early as 1893.
However, the cause of women’s suffrage had suffered a blow when ‘An appeal against female suffrage’ was published in The Nineteenth Century in June 1889. It was drawn up by (among others) Mrs Humphry Ward (1851-1920). Among the 104 women who signed were Beatrice Potter (later Webb) and Lady Randolph Churchill. In the July issue Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) wrote a rejoinder. The August issue contained the names of 1,200 anti-suffrage ladies.
In 1894 the cause of women’s suffrage gained a significant advance in the passage of the Local Government Act, but which married women became open for all the local government franchises already open to single women and widows. The issue of coverture was now effectively dead, and the way was clear for all suffragists to work together for equal rights for all women to the parliamentary franchise.
In 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. In that year too (February) a woman’s suffrage bill passed its second reading in the Commons for the first time.
Progress and regression
In 1894 the term ‘the New Woman’ was invented. ‘The label was most convincingly applied to the young middle-class woman who not only had a job but maintained herself and lived on her own or with another young woman, in an apartment or “chambers”. This entailed a complete departure from the domestic obligations traditionally filled by this age group, and was correctly summed up as “the revolt of the daughters” – another coinage by the press of the day.’
But there were not many ‘new women’ and some of the most spectacular advances also highlighted women’s continuing disabilities. Changes in the law did not always expand women’s rights at the expense of men’s. As late as 1899 a jury’s decision in the case of Regina v. Clarence overturned the standard opinion of judges and legal textbooks by asserting a husband’s right to rape his wife (even when, as in this case, the husband was suffering from advanced syphilis). The Vagrancy Act (1898) which outlawed sexual soliciting, prescribed fines of 40 shillings for female offenders compared with six months’ imprisonment and hard labour for men; but the Act was massively enforced against women, whereas prosecutions of men were virtually unknown.
Some intellectual trends worked against women. The Darwinian, Herbert Spencer, argued that childbirth precluded the female brain from sharing in ‘the latest products of human evolution’, namely abstract reasoning and the sentiment of justice. (These arguments were used against women jurors.)
Not all developments in popular culture favoured women. The late Victorian cult of both upper- and lower-class ‘clubland’ was an almost exclusively masculine sphere.
Growing fears about Britain’s national defence capability and status as a world power tended to intermesh with fears about the changing role of women and the decline in the birth rate. In the 1860s hostility to women’s suffrage had emphasized mainly their lack of property rights. This was no longer such an issue in the 1890s and was replaced by the notion that a female-dominated electorate would subvert military security. Rising concern for Empire, family, and general biological improvement meant that in certain respects gender divisions became more pronounced.
Feminism was a minority cause for women. In purely numerical terms the most successful women’s organization of the period was the Mothers’ Union (1886). The ideology of the MU was expressed in a poem by Lady Dorothy Neville, which appeared in the Mothers’ Union Journal in 1908. [Quoted Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England. From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (1994), 142.]
The Rights of Woman, what are they?
The Right to labour love and pray,
The Right to weep with those who weep,
The Right to work while others sleep.