The late 19th century: campaigning women
It was not until the second half of the 19th century that anything like a true women’s ‘movement’ began to emerge in England. This movement converged particularly around Barbara Leigh Smith and the group of friends who had become known – after one of their early meeting places – as ‘the Ladies of Langham Place’. The group initiated more organized campaigns around issues that had already been clearly defined: women’s urgent need for better education and for increased possibilities of employment, as well as the improvement of the legal position of married women.
The women came together, in part, as a reaction against what seemed to be a narrowing definition of ‘femininity’ and an increasingly conventional and constricting notion of a proper ‘womanly sphere’. A Victorian woman’s highest virtue seems to have been nervously, if frequently, equated with genteel passivity. A middle-class woman who had to earn her own living might be lucky enough to find a poorly paid position as a governess, even though she had probably been skimpily educated herself. Few other occupations were open to her. And there was still no way out for a woman who found herself unhappily married.
Sadly, even women with impressive achievements of their own, women who had written with great sympathy and insight about women’s lives and struggles, seem sometimes to have shied away
from an emerging feminism. Mary Ann Evans – George Eliot – despite her remarkable understanding in Middlemarch (1871-2) of the way a woman’s intelligence and talents may be denied an adequate outlet, and despite the fact that she became a close friend and supporter of Barbara Leigh Smith, remarked in 1853 that ‘woman does not yet deserve a better lot than man gives her’. And she praised the way an ‘exquisite type of gentleness, tenderness, possible maternity’ may suffuse ‘a woman’s being with affectionateness’. In 1856, the novelist Mrs Gaskell, author of Ruth (1853) and North and South (1855), dismissed the very notion of women training as doctors:
I would not trust a mouse to a woman if a man’s judgement was to be had. Women have no judgement. They’ve tact and sensitiveness, genius and hundreds of fine and loving qualities; but are at best angelic geese as to matters requiring serious and long medical education.
And in 1857 Elizabeth Barrett Browning argued in Aurora Leigh that:
A woman. . . must prove what she can do Before she does it, prate of women’s rights,
Of woman’s mission, woman’s function till The men (who are prating too on their side) cry A woman’s function plainly is. . . to talk.
Barbara Leigh Smith (after she married, she broke with convention and simply added her husband’s name, Bodichon, to her own) was born into a family that was wealthy but untypical: her parents were not married. Her father had always encouraged her to read, and made her a generous allowance, which meant she could afford to travel widely. She spent time in Europe with Bessie Rayner Parkes, who went on to write Remarks on the Education of Girls, and who also insisted that single women would prove crucial to any improvement in the lot of all women. (A review at the time mocked
both Parkes and Leigh Smith, who had just published a pamphlet on Women and Work, sneering that ‘women are fatally deficient in the power of close consecutive thought’.)
In 1857, recuperating in Algeria after an illness, Leigh Smith met the man would become her husband, the physician Eugene Bodichon. They spent a year in America after their wedding, where, in Boston, New York, and New Orleans, she met women who were interested in education, as well as others who had trained as doctors. At Seneca Falls she had long conversations with Lucretia Mott, who was an activist both in the anti-slavery movement and in the emerging campaign for women’s rights. Leigh Smith would go on to work on the areas which seemed most urgent: the legal problems of married women, the urgent necessity for better education and training for women, as well as the need to extend the limited employment possibilities available to them.
In 1854, Barbara Leigh Smith had produced a pamphlet titled A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws of England Concerning Women. She began by considering the contradictions limiting single women: they were allowed to vote at parish, but not, even if they were tax-paying property owners, at parliamentary elections. She moved on to the even greater disabilities facing married women: ‘a man and his wife are one person in law; the wife loses all her rights as a single woman, and her existence is entirely absorbed to that of her husband’. She discussed the question of marriage settlements, and the custody of children if parents separated; and even uncovered the curious and troubling legal fact that, once a couple were formally engaged, a woman could not dispose of her property without her fiance’s knowledge and agreement. Her manifesto sold for a few pence; it was very widely read, and went to three editions. In December of the following year, she and a group of like-minded women – including Bessie Parkes and Anna Jameson – formed a Married Women’s Property Committee (England’s first organized feminist group), which circulated petitions for law reform throughout the
country, and had soon had gathered some 2,400 signatures. The Committee’s intervention led to a series of amendments which alleviated the financial situation of married women, even if the changes still did not radically redefine their rights.
Leigh Smith had also produced an article, first published in the newly founded English Women’s Journal in 1858, in which she argued strongly against the view that middle-class women, because they were expected to marry, should be prepared for nothing else. Large numbers would probably never marry, and might have to support themselves; but even those who did marry, she argued, should be equipped to educate their children, and, if necessary, to take on work outside the home. Moreover, she insisted on the value of work for its own sake.
To bring a family of 12 children into the world is not itself a noble vocation… To be a noble woman is better than being a mother to a noble man.
She even invoked Queen Victoria, who was, after all, both a mother and a working monarch. At the same time, Leigh Smith insisted on greater recognition of the value of the very real work that women already did, looking after the home and raising their families. Leigh Smith actually set up a primary school in London, which survived for nearly ten years. Boys and girls were taught together; and her own nieces and the children of her friends learned alongside the children of workers who lived in the neighbourhood.
The English Women’s Journal, which was at first largely funded by Leigh Smith, seems to have reached – and often inspired to action – a reasonably wide audience. Even George Eliot, who had initially been very doubtful, wrote at the end of 1859 reassuring her friend that it ‘must be doing good substantially – stimulating woman to useful work and rousing people generally to some consideration of women’s needs’. But Leigh Smith and Bessie Parkes were soon confronted, at first hand, with the problems of women’s
employment. Readers of their Journal, desperate for work, began coming to their office, which had moved from Langham Place to Cavendish Square. They decided to keep an employment register – only to discover how few opportunities were in fact available for women. Many men bitterly resented the prospect of women entering their trades; women, they argued, would lower wages for everyone, and their presence might well force men into unemployment.
Employment possibilities concerned other women as well. Earlier that year, Harriet Martineau – who was familiar with the work of the Langham Place group, and probably influenced by it, though she was never actually a member – had published, in the Edinburgh Review, an article called ‘Female Industry1 which took a cool, hardheaded look at the few openings that were actually available to women. She saw clearly that the situation of women was changing; more and more women had no choice but to go out to work. The concept of ‘earning one’s bread’ was, she argued, a fairly recent one for men as well as women.
We live in a new commercial and industrial economy, but our ideas, our language and our arrangements have not altered in any corresponding degree. We go on talking as if it were still true that every woman is, or ought to be, supported by father, brother or husband.
Poor women might labour in the fields or in factories; apart from that, Martineau could see only two – equally low-paid – possibilities: needlework or teaching. Like Barbara Leigh Smith, she insisted that women’s education must be extended and improved, and that a ‘fair field’ should be opened to their ‘power and energies’.
She praised Elizabeth Blackwell, who had trained as a doctor in America, and who was visiting England at the time. (Barbara Leigh
Smith and Bessie Parkes helped to organize the talks Blackwell gave, not just in London but in provincial centres as well.) But unlike many of these early feminists, and because she believed strongly that women should make no more than moderate and rational claims, she had little sympathy with the emerging demand for the vote.
Francis Power Cobbe, as noted in the previous chapter an advocate in the campaign for the Married Women’s Property Act and of education for women, did go on to campaign for women’s suffrage, believing that women could not necessarily rely on men to protect them or their interests. Her arguments to this end sometimes betray a hint of class arrogance: she was angry that ‘we women of the upper ranks – constitutionally qualified by the possession of property (and, I may be permitted to add, naturally qualified by education and intelligence at least up to the level of the “illiterate” order of voters) are still denied the suffrage’. She was always profoundly conservative, though her disapproval of the radical wing of the Conservative Party led her to resign from the emerging suffrage movement in 1867.
Emily Davies was another staunch conservative, in everything except her recognition that education was central to any improvement in women’s lot. ‘It is no wonder,’ the young Davies wrote, ‘that people who have not learned to do anything cannot find anything to do’. When she had to go to nurse her brother, who had fallen ill in Algiers, she had the great good fortune to meet Barbara Leigh Smith, who encouraged her, and reassured her that there were many other women who would sympathize with her longings and dissatisfactions. Back in England, Davies (along with her friend Elizabeth Garrett) visited Langham Place, which had become the headquarters of both the English Women’s Journal and a Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. She felt inspired and, when she returned to her home in the North, formed a Northumberland and Durham branch of the Society, as well as writing a series of letters to her local paper arguing the importance of increased
employment opportunities for women. She was scathing about the meagre intellectual training available to girls like herself: ‘Do they go to school? No. Do they have governesses? No. They have lessons and get on as well as they can.’ And she described, with great personal feeling,
the weight of discouragement produced by being told, that as women, nothing much is ever to be expected of them… that whatever they do they must not interest themselves, except in a second-hand and shallow way, in the pursuits of men, for in such pursuits they must always expect to fail.
Women know how this kind of attitude ‘stifles and chills; how hard it is to work courageously through it’.
But Davies was also encouraged by the growing recognition among the Langham Place group that education was all-important. In London, the recently established Queen’s College and Bedford College were offering something like an adequate schooling to (some) middle-class girls, and in 1862 Davies managed to form a committee to further the prospects of women taking the University Local Examinations, which had been established in 1858. It took a great deal of slow, careful organization and negotiation before Cambridge agreed, as an experiment in 1865, that women could attempt the same exams as men. Though Davies was always a realist, she never retreated from her belief that girls must be offered exactly the same education as men, at both school and university level. Her book on The Higher Education of Women, which appeared in 1866, is careful not to state the claims too strongly. Davies admitted that women will probably ‘never do as well as men… But that does not seem to me a reason for not doing their best and choosing for themselves what they will try.’ She managed to raise money (Barbara Leigh Smith contributed generously) to found a women’s higher education college, which was set up at Hitchin in Hertfordshire with, initially, just five students. In 1873, it moved to Cambridge and became Girton College; this was followed
in 1879 by Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. But for all Emily Davies’s radical ideas – she insisted from the start that women students take the same exams as men – she certainly did not want women to enjoy the same freedoms as male students. She expected that her students would always behave decorously, with the utmost propriety; unconventional and ‘unfeminine’ behaviour might, she believed, jeopardize the whole project.
Emily Davies’s pioneering work was crucially important, though, perhaps inevitably, it was a long time before women achieved anything approaching real equality in higher education. In London, Queen’s and Bedford Colleges began awarding degrees to women in 1878. But Oxford women became full members of the University only in 1919, and, paradoxically, though Cambridge granted women ‘titular’ degrees in 1921, they were not recognized as full members of the University until 1948.
Elizabeth Garrett (later Garrett Anderson) also received support from the Langham Place group in her prolonged and courageous efforts, in the face of what now seems the most extraordinary opposition, to train as a doctor. She was often the butt of crude jokes. Some male students announced their disapproval of ‘the impropriety of males and females mingling… while studying subjects which hitherto have been considered of a delicate nature’, while the Lancet journal dismissed her efforts to train as ‘morbid’. Nothing shook Garrett in her determination. For one thing, she believed that women doctors would be a great boon ‘to many suffering women’. Moreover, the work interested her deeply, and she knew that she would be good at it.
She was encouraged by the example of Elizabeth Blackwell, who had managed to graduate in medicine at a small college in New York State in 1849, and had opened a dispensary for women and children in the New York slums. But when Blackwell visited London, she was sometimes greeted with harsh criticism: ‘it is impossible that a woman whose hands reek with gore can be
possessed of the same nature or feelings as the generality of women’, one columnist remarked. Elizabeth Garrett had to struggle hard to convince her own mother that her patient determination to work in medicine was not wrong, or morbid, but the ‘result of a healthy, active energy’. Fortunately, her father was more supportive, and Garrett herself quietly, patiently persisted. She studied midwifery in Scotland, then won her M. D. diploma in Paris. Even the British Medical Journal, which had been consistently hostile to the idea of women in medicine, admitted that ‘everyone must admire the indomitable perseverance and pluck which Miss Garrett has shown’. By 1870, when she was persuaded to stand for election to the London School Board, she had obviously become a highly respected and popular public figure, and she received more votes than any other candidate.
One of the most important and far-reaching campaigns in the later part of the 19th century was also one of the most unexpected: the agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts which dramatically exposed the cruel hypocrisies of the double sexual standard. The first of the Acts had been passed in 1864; in certain ports and garrison towns, police were given the authority to arrest any woman who was merely suspected of being a prostitute, subject her, sometimes brutally, to an internal examination, and if there were any signs of venereal disease, to confine her to hospital. There were extensions to the Act in 1866 and 1869. Women soon began protesting; they included Elizabeth Garrett, Florence Nightingale, and Harriet Martineau, who argued that ‘the regulation system creates horrors worse than those which it is supposed to restrain’.
By 1869, a Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts had been set up, a number of eminently respectable women forming the first real, and effective, pressure group. In the first instance, their campaign launched an attack on specific laws that bore very brutally on prostitutes or suspected prostitutes; but they soon extended the argument to dramatize the workings of the double sexual standard, with its disastrous effects
on both men and women all through society. Josephine Butler soon became the group’s leader. The well-educated daughter of a Liberal family, she was beautiful, devout, and eminently respectable – hence a superbly effective propagandist for what many people regarded as a highly unrespectable cause. She had already begun working with prostitutes when, after the tragic death of their only daughter, she and her husband moved to Liverpool. ‘I became possessed with an irresistible desire to go forth and find some pain keener than my own’, she remarked. She took some unhappy ‘fallen’ girls into her own home, and raised money to establish a small ‘House of Rest’ that would care ‘for dying Magdalenes’.
Butler had already displayed a keen interest in the problems facing women. A pamphlet on The Education and Employment ofWomen, published in 1868, made the argument, familiar by then, for better education, and also – given the number of unmarried women in England – for adequate training to enable them to support themselves. In 1869, she and other sympathetic women formed a Ladies National Association; Butler made a superbly effective figurehead and leader. Her speeches and writings effectively combine cool, clear argument with passionate feeling. In a pamphlet written in 1871, and based on her own experience with prostitutes, Butler argued that the Contagious Diseases Acts amounted to a suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. They ‘virtually introduce a species of villeinage or slavery. I use the word not sentimentally but in the strictest legal sense.’ The issue, and her protest, kindled the imagination and feelings of women all through the country. In an 1870 letter to the Prime Minister, a member of the Ladies National Association had insisted that
there is not one of the mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters whom you cherish with proud affection who dare safely assert that, had she been born in the same unprotected, unfenced position, in the very jaws of poverty and vice… she, too, in the innocent ignorance ofher unfledged girlhood, might not have slipped, like them, into that
awful gulf from which society at large has long done its best to make escape hopeless.
Josephine Butler and her rapidly growing band of highly respectable supporters soon became a remarkably effective pressure group; their campaign exposed, dramatically, a brutal double sexual standard that long custom had made virtually invisible. And, crucially, they argued it was a double standard that oppressed, not just prostitutes, but most women, in all kinds of subtle ways, that spread through almost every aspect of their everyday domestic and working lives. Later, giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, Butler pointed out the indirect but disastrous effects of the Act on men as well as women. When she had visited Chatham, ‘I saw there evidence of the degradation of the young soldiers who first join the army… There were boys who appeared to be not more than thirteen. . . it was as solemn as hell itself.’ The real villains, the real exploiters, were in her view the pimps, the people who made money by ‘setting up a house in which women are sold to men’.
In the 1880s, Annie Besant tackled a different, and perhaps even more urgent, form of exploitation. Discovering the truly terrible conditions in which women worked at the Bryant and May match-making factory in East London, she sent a deeply, and effectively, emotional letter to the many shareholders who happened to be clergymen:
let there rise before you the pale worn face of another man’s daughter. . . as she pulls off her battered hat and shows a head robbed of its hair by the constant rubbing of the carried boxes, robbed thereof that your dividends might be larger, Sir Cleric… I hold you up to the public opprobrium you deserve. . .
Her charges were widely publicized, and aroused great public concern. The match girls led sizeable protest marches in London, and were eventually allowed to form their own union.
Progress on all these issues facing women was now underway. But women – as well as a few male champions like Thompson and Mill – had been arguing for votes for women all through the century; in its closing decades, the demand would become urgent, and suffragists – and later, militant suffragettes – would take centre stage.