the great adventure – Maude Royden

Selecting only 40 first-wave feminists is hard enough but how is possible to round off such a list?  Perhaps only by recalling one who, as a multi-faceted pioneer, crossed many different barriers and whose loving critique of the Church remains vital today…

maude_roydenMaude Royden (1876-1956) was a remarkable woman who broke new ground for women (and as she saw it, thereby for children and men) in her leadership in the women’s and peace movements, in Britain and overseas, and, in thought and action, in leadership within the Church and in advocacy for a more healthy and reasoned approach to sexuality.  Her legacy is impressive as is her continued challenge.

Born in Mossley Hill, Liverpool, daughter of Sir Thomas Bland Royden, Maude Royden was educated at Cheltenham Ladies School and Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.   She obtained what she called her ‘suffrage education’ however through her work at the Victoria Women’s Settlement in Liverpool.  Although she went on to parish work at South Luffenham, and to University Extension Lecturing, she could never shake off her confrontation with the plight of poor women, and its implications.  By 1905, the year in which militant tactics really began to reignite the suffrage movement, she was ready to begin her suffrage career.  The leading Church feminist of her day and a founder member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, as a suffrage speaker and executive member for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and later as editor of the NUWSS journal The Common Cause, she had few equals.  A major refrain of her speeches and writings was the linkage between suffrage and social reform.

With the outbreak of war, Maude Royden then began her deep commit235px-Insignia_NATO_Army_IFOR.svgment to peace work.  She became the secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (which still continues 100 years after its foundation) and actively campaigned at great risk to her health and safety.  Although unable to travel to the women’s peace congress in the Hague in 1915, when the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was established, she also became its vice-president.    She was a strong supporter of the No-Conscription Fellowship, which, founded by Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway, encouraged men to:

refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred.

Further impelled by the horrors of the first world war, Maude Royden was a major voice for peace before the second world war.  Indeed, responding to invites, she made several international tours, in the USA, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand, speaking about the League of Nations, social justice, the ministry of women and Christianity.  She was the prime mover in the inter-war attempt to form a Peace Army of unarmed passive resisters to intercede between the combats in the world’s military confrontations, starting with the one in Manchuria.   In 1934 she visited India and met Gandhi.   When Dick Sheppard, a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, formed the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), she was also one of many distinguished figure who joined what became a significant mass movement (and which remains the oldest secular pacifist organisation still in existence in Britain).  However, on the outbreak of the Second World War Maude Royden renounced pacifism, as she accepted that it was necessary to fight against the evils of Nazism.

122513aMaude Royden might also have had a successful political career.  In 1922 she was indeed invited by the Labour Party to stand as its candidate for the Wirral constituency but declined because she wanted to concentrate on her religious work.  For, though disappointed by the lack of Anglican women’s ordination in her lifetime, she was a major contributor to the track.   This began in 1917 when she accepted an invitation to become assistant preacher at the City Temple in London, being thus the first woman to occupy this office (though not, as she pointed out, the first woman to speak there: the Salvation Army co-founder, Catherine Bramwell-Booth having that distinction).   Roundly denounced by some as a triple horror – ‘a woman, a pacifist, and an Anglican’ (!) – she was warmly received by others, and supported by many Anglicans, including Bishop Edward Hicks (who attended her first Sunday preaching).  Indeed, though Maude herself admitted to him that she had a had a ‘severe shock’ in her ‘Anglican soul’ about pronouncing a benediction in his presence, he simply replied ‘it was the best blessing I have had since my mother died.’  (Bid Me Discourse, A.M.Royden Papers).

Maude was at the heart of the struggle for women’s ministry within the Anglican Church.  In 1918 she had for instance spoken in Hudson Shaw’s church on the League of Nations and Christianity.  As a result Shaw (who, in 1944, later married Maude after the death of his ou_lmh_pcf17_largefirst wife) was rebuked by the Bishop of London.  Undeterred, in 1919 he again asked her to preach at the three hours’ service on Good Friday. The bishop forbade it, on the grounds that this was an especially ‘sacred’ service.  Denied such space by her own Church, in 1921 Maude Royden consequently established the Guildhouse, as an ecumenical place of worship and a cultural centre.  On Sunday afternoons there were talks about politics and the arts and she herself preached at the Sunday evening service to a congregation from all over London. In 1929, following the initial impetus given by women such as Ursula Roberts, she began the official campaign for the ordination of women when she founded the Society for the Ministry of Women. The first English woman to become a Doctor of Divinity in 1931, she made several worldwide preaching tours from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Such pioneering work would have been enough for most people, particularly with the controversy it created.  Yet Maude Royden did not restrict her Christian feminism to safe causes.  For her indeed, Christian feminism was in fact true Christian ‘humanism’, a ‘democrac5183rJiJrsLy of the virtues’, in which all were to be valued and empowered.  Consequently she was also well in advance of many in her generous and sensitive treatment of sexual issues.   Most notably of all, she gave passionate support to Radclyffe Hall when, in 1928, she published the novel The Well of Loneliness about the subject of lesbianism. Widely attacked as obscene and corrupting, the chief magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ordered that all copies be destroyed, and that literary merit presented no grounds for defence.   Under pressure, the publisher agreed to withdraw the novel and proofs intended for a publisher in France were seized in October 1928.  In the face of this, Maude Royden was unshrinking, and Radclyffe Hall therefore wrote to her with thanks, underlining her motivation for writing the novel:

May I take this opportunity of telling you how much your support of The Well of Loneliness has meant to its author during the past months of government persecution. I wrote the book in order to help a very much misunderstood and therefore unfortunate section of society, and to feel that a leader of thought like yourself had extended to me your understanding was, and still is, a source of strength and encouragement.

217046_10150239719072985_774142984_8793803_5970604_n3Such incidents speak of a different kind of Christian faith in action as an expression of Christian feminism at its best.  No wonder then that Maude Royden, like many Christian feminists, was critical of the Church’s attempts to respond to a changing world.  The chief obstacle, as she saw it (as in The Hour and the Church, 1918), was the Church’s inability to be a true ‘fellowship’.  Rather, she observed with feeling, it too often seemed obsessed with the definition of ‘orthodoxy’, or with getting people to ‘come to church’ as it were a musical concert.  Even the efforts of reforming groups were all too often focused on the establishment.  So:

To pass from a gathering of Labourists or Suffragists to one of, for example, ‘National Missioners’ was like passing from warm life to chilly death…  At the one, all was staid and middle-aged, cautious and polite, with the extreme and chilling politeness of people who are too kind and nice to want to hurt one another’s exceedingly sensitive feelings, even if, in order to avoid this, it was necessary to avoid saying or doing anything to the purpose.  At the other, all was alive and gay, hopeful and young.  We were not afraid of hurting one another’s feelings, for we were all too much set on a great purpose to be thinking of our feelings at all.

Such words might all too often be descriptive of the difference between ‘live’ movements of our own day and many church meetings.  For, as Maude Royden affirmed, the ‘hallmark of the living movement’ is not asking people to subscribe to particular writings or to recite particular beliefs, which only participation in the movement can bring home to them.  All that is asked is acceptance of the ‘aims and objects’.  In terms of the way of Christ: ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’:

Would it be safe?  No, of course it would not be safe…  we are afraid of such risks, afraid of such a terrible victory (as Christ’s)… we treat the Church as one long accustomed to ill-health.  Do not open the window!  Do not bang the door!  You cannot take risks with the invalid.  Step lightly, speak softly, at any moment the poor thing might die!

Instead, for Maude Royden, as for so many Christian feminists then and since, the Christian faith and journey to peace and justice were ‘the great adventure’.  May God strengthen and inspire us to leave aside our own temptations to safety and to continue the journey today…


God of all humanity,
We give thanks for Maude Royden
and for all Christian feminist pioneers.
We rejoice in their successes and gallant failures,
in their willingness to take risks, and to seek to use their gifts.
Grant that we too may be empowered by your love,
that we may play our full part in the great adventure of life and faith,
In the name of Jesus, who gave up his life so that we might all be free, Amen.

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the challenge and cost of clergy militancy – T.J.Walshe and C.A.Wills

imgres-1First-wave feminism was very much a movement of women.  Yet, as seen in earlier posts, some men played a helpful supporting part.  Whilst not to the same degree as many women, a few also clearly suffered for their involvement.  This also helps highlight the obstacles of the struggle.  Fear of loss of position, livelihood, reputation and support continues to act as a break on involvement in struggles for justice and freedom today.  Thankfully, some are willing to transcend fear’s shackles…

Despite the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, there were few Catholic priest supporters.  Any crumbs of support, including overseas news, were therefore eagerly seized upon.  The NUWSS had earlier, in 1909, published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Tablet’ on Women’s Suffrage and Expressions of Opinion on Women’s Suffrage, highlighting clergy supporters.  The CWSS similarly eagerly reported the views of any positive Catholic images-3leaders, including those of Cardinal Moran of Sydney.   It had to wait until 1919 however, after Annie Christich had been received in Rome by Benedict XV, for use of papal words (see her article ‘Yes, We Approve’ in Catholic Citizen, 15 January 1919, later circulated as a pamphlet, beginning with a papal quotation: ‘We should like to see women electors everywhere’.   Until then, with hearty opposition from bodies such as the Catholic Herald, Catholic priest supporters were few and isolated.   Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Frances Bourne, by his own admission, remained hesitant to discuss the ‘women question’ in public.

The Rt. Revd. Monsignor T.J.Walshe was one of the exceptions,  Originally from County Waterford in Ireland, he was  educated at St Francis Xavier’s College in Liverpool, and at Ushaw College near Durham, and ordained in 1887.  Most of his ministry was spent on Merseyside, where he served in various capacities, including as secretary of the Catholic Schools Managers’ Association and as a notable lecturer, preacher and writer.

Walshe’s views were highlighted in his lead article ‘Apologia Pro Clero’ in the Catholic Suffragist of 15 March 1915.  It was both an appeal to fellow Catholics and a clear statement of conservative Christian feminism.  As Walshe confessed:

I have not hesitated to say publicly both in London and Liverpool, that I am an advocate of Woman Suffrage because I am a priest.  To me… the question of Woman Suffrage is essentially a moral question – a movement which aims at the safeguarding of Religious Education, the virtuous upbringing of the child, the stability of the marriage tie and the sanctity of the home.

To advocate this claim was therefore ‘not only a privilege but a duty’.  To oppose it was ‘not merely an outrageous anomaly, but an outrageous blunder’.  Women’s weight in the councils of men could indeed avoid the barbarism into which Europe had plunged, for:

The reign of the King of Peace will come when the rights of all His children shall receive their just recognition.

In Liverpool. Walshe and his sister regularly hosted meetings of Catholic suffragists at their house and gave unstinting support.  As Miss Florence Barry, Hon. Secretary of St. Joan’s Social and Political Alliance, wrote on his death:

In those days – when the cause was at the height of its unpopularity – it was no easy matter for a Catholic priest to identify himself with the Suffrage agitation, but Father Walshe never hesitated in proclaiming his belief in the woman’s movement, and lost no opportunity of befriending us… In a letter of good wishes to the Liverpool Branch on the occasion of its Jubilee last May, Monsignor Walshe ended : ‘I cannot conclude without reference to members of the Alliance who are no longer with us. We recall how bravely they faced opposition in the early days of the movement and how faithful their witness continued to be.’  To no one could these words apply more fittingly than to Mgr. Walshe himself.

Although there was greater support among Anglican clergy, many active Christian feminists also did not enhance their careers by involvement, especially if they were also socialists.  As Ursula Roberts observed about the damage done to her own husband’s prospects by his own views and hers. particularly when she started campaigning for women’s ordination:

He was already scorned in the diocese as a supporter of women’s suffrage, and as a socialist… I hated standing in his way.  I knew that but for my peculiar ideas, he might have been offered a canonry or some such.  (Letter 18.8.1916 Autograph Collection)

The Revd. C.A.Wills was perhaps the foremost clergy victim.   Image2He stood alongside Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation through all their tumultous activities of 1914, even when other good friends stood back.  On one occasion for example, Sylvia Pankhurst planned a march to end at Westminster Abbey as an appropriate ‘symbolic’ act on Mothering Sunday (22 March 1914).  Despite approaching the Dean in the hope of adaptation to the evening service no reply had been received.  Arriving at the Abbey, led by C.A.Wills, in cassock and white surplice, the procession found the Abbey gates shut in its face.  Undeterred by the profered explanation that the Abbey was full, Wills immediately declared that ‘then we will pray where we stand’.  To the consternation of the clergy within, he then led an impressive open-air service (see accounts in Votes for Women 27 March 1914 and Christian Commonwealth 21 March.1914)

Such actions had already led to Wills being sacked as a curate by one vicar, endorsed by the Bishop of London.  The immediate cause was a sermon on 25 January 1914, entitled ‘Thou shalt do no murder’.  Declaring against forcible feeding, Wills had read out statements of leading medical men against the practice, together with the Bishop of Kensington’s considered response.   This was not the last time he suffered for his commitment.  On a later 05551aoccasion, when Lloyd George was being heckled by a suffragette at a garden party at Bessemer House in Denmark Hill, London in 1914, Wills voiced his support by shouting out ‘ Give enfranchisement to women’.  He found himself silenced with a handkerchief over his mouth and he was then bundled into a nearby lake.  Another man then jumped into the water and repeatedly tried to duck him, to the amusement of nearby bystanders.   ‘Suffragists Ducked’ was the headline in the press.


Fearless God,
we give thanks for T.J.Walshe and C.A.Wills
and for all men who have walked shoulder to shoulder with women,
seeking freedom, justice and peace.
Grant us grace to have the courage of our own convictions,
that we may further the work of your kingdom
and not count the cost.
through the strength of the Crucified One, Amen.

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the new nonconformity – L.E.Turquand and Jane Strickland

Nothing, it is said, attracts more than a good example…

The Free Church League for Women’s Suffrage (FCLWS) was founded in the second half of 1910, after a letter from Miss L.E.Turquand appeared in the Christian Commonwealth (13 July 1910).  Significantly, it highlighted the feeling that the Anglican Church League for Women’s Suffrage had stolen a march.  For the importance of church feminist bodies was twofold: both supporting already active women and men through faith, and in organising for more effective mobilisation and awareness within the churches. So we suffer:

the great disability of having no place, except in an alien church, where we can bring our movement in touch with religion.  Nowhere in our own body can we receive the joy and inspiration, and calm, and consecration which come from lifting a cause into the presence of God… But I believe that we have in our Free Churches a much larger body of sympathy.  Only it is ineffective.  Its presence is unknown.  And it is not serviceable.  There is no way of making use of it.  What is needed is to organise it.

Whilst the Free Church League did have men in its membership, it was also clear that Ministers were not its strength.  ‘Are we not equal to forming ourselves?’ asked Hatty Baker, ‘women of today require neither condescension nor patronage.’  (Christian Commonwealth 27 July 1910).

Nonconformist Christians of various persuasions had played parts in the women’s movement, notably Quakers and Unitarians, through such campaigns as temperance and social purity.  Whilst the largest Free Churches had closed the doors to female preaching opened up in their beginnings, this tradition was also ready for revival by 1910 and female representation and women’s ordinations were soon to occur.  Within the suffrage movement some striking contributions had also been made, including by some Free Church Ministers, such Fred Hankinson, as the Baptist J.Ivory Cripps and Congregationalist R.J.Campbell.  The advent of the Free Church League however considerably increased the breadth and intensity of involvement.

Hatty Baker (see earlier blog) was a major figure in the Free Church League and its first honorary secretary (until the end of 1911 when she resigned due to weight of other work).  Perhaps Jane Strickland and Miss L.E.Turquand were more typical however of the different generations of women involved, albeit both of sussexwomenthumbthem leading pioneers in other fields.  Jane Strickland brought the authority and position of a leading figure in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  A member also of the Women’s Writers’ Suffrage League, she was involved in education (principally through Hastings borough education committee and the University Education Association) and social and peace work (as vice-chair of the Hastings’ Mothers’ Institute and Babies’ Welcome, and committee member of the Hastings Peace and Arbitration Committee).  In contrast, Miss Turquand was a younger activist.  A Poor Law Guardian in Croydon from 1907, she had also served as Secretary of her local Liberal Association, and as a School Manager.  She was an early member of the WSPU, for whom, as for the National Union, she worked for a time as a branch secretary.  She then went on to become a vigorous WFL suffragette, making a police court protest and having her goods sold as a result of her resistance to House Duty.  As the Free Church League press secretary, and as editor of the Free Church Suffrage Times, she was a key proponent of Free Church feminism.

The Free Church made progress in most parts of the country though it always lagged well behind the Anglican Church League in numbers and significance.  It did however do notable work in the Criminal Law Amendment Act campaign, and on the Wilks Case (a celebrated incident where a husband had been committed to prison because his wife had refused to pay taxes on her separately assessed private income.  The FCLWS also linked up with the Labour Party on a number of occasions.  Support came from all across the suffragist spectrum, although the FCLWS was far more vocally supportive of militants than the Anglican League.  The death of Emily Wilding Davison for example, was far more fulsomely received.  Indeed for Charles Fleming Williams (successor to Hatty Baker as FCLWS organiser):

Miss Davison belonged to the spiritual hierarchy, and true to her spiritual ancestry willingly laid down her life as a a ransom for many (she) will not have died in vain if the open secret of her reckless heroism be read aright by our statesmen and our churches (Free Church Suffrage Times, July 1913)

Of all the suffrage societies, it was also the only the FCLWS which saw the incongruity of Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral service.  Whereas outside, reflected the Free Church Suffrage Times (July 1913), all was entirely feminists, inside (where the Ministers, although strong suffragists, were Anglican priests) all was entirely masculine: ‘and Miss Davison had died that women should have self realization.’  Only in the last hymn (‘Nearer Thy God to Thee’), written by a woman (Sarah Flower Adams, a Unitarian), did ‘womanhood’ enter.  Such radical theological reflection was unusual.  Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why the FCLWS was weaker than the Anglican Church League for Women’s Suffrage was the more conservative nature of the Free Churches’ general evangelical protestantism.  For the intellectual foundations of Christian feminism were increasingly being derived from various currents of contemporary liberal, idealist and incarnationalist thought.  Christian socialism was also a significant factor and again weaker among Free Church Ministers, though from its ranks came a number of influential men such as John Clifford and Fleming Williams.

Perhaps the FCLWS was also one of the final flourishes of the celebrated ‘Nonconformist Conscience’. For with most of their historic disabilities, apart from education, removed, the women’s movement offered fresh impetus for Free Church people seeking a new sense of identity.  With its moral concern, spiritual aspirations and anti-establishment zeal, the Cause of women’s suffrage had the appeal of ‘The New Nonconformity’ (indeed the title of a keynote address by Ernest Barson, ‘The God of the Feminists’, Free Church Suffrage Times, January 1914).  Similar sentiments were expressed by many FCLWS members, perceiving God as immanent in the Woman’s Cause, as, in Barson’s words:

by far the most evident sign of His Living Spirit that we have today…
None but the Almighty ‘Power that makes for Righteousness’ could have wrought the miracle of women’s uplifting.  So we have just as much right to say the God of Mary Wollstonecraft or Mrs.Despard, or Mrs.Fawcett, or Lady Constance Lytton as the God of Isaac and Jacob, and Moses and Nehemiah.

As J.Ivory Cripps thus commented, the feminist movement:

will go forward to victory whatever we in the churches say or do.  The thing is not a fad or a craze… It is a movement of world-wide extent and deep spiritual significance.  In the deepest sense it is of God.
(‘The Free Churches and the Women’s Movement’, FCST
May 1913)

Therefore, church feminist involvement, as for the Anglican CLWS ,was ‘for the honour of the church’:

I want the Free Churches to come in, not because the movement can do without them, but because it would be quite too dreadful and disgraceful, if they said nothing and did nothing throughout the whole course of the controversy?

The Feminist Movement, Cripps added, was not only ‘from top to bottom’ women’s ‘Spiritual demand for self-expression’ (in Home and State), it was also now asking when Christians were ‘going to realise spiritual and democratic ideals within the Church itself.’ Would they take up the challenge, or, as Fleming Williams wondered, would they ‘lose their place in van of human progress?’  (FCST October 1913).
…How well have the Churches done so since?


God of freedom
We give thanks for all those members of the Free Churches
who have played their part in making a track for women in the church and in the world.
Inspire us to follow their good examples
that we may be unafraid to trust to conscience
and seek your truth and will.
In the power of your transforming love, Amen.

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beyond ‘ecclesiastical millinery’ – Mildred Tuker

Feminist theology and scholarship are now widespread.  Yet they still have power both to inspire and unsettle.  How much more so was this true a hundred years or so ago?!  Lacking the substantial range and depth of feminist scholarship now available, that which was produced fell like drops of rain on a parched people…

Above all first-wave Christian feminist scholars was Mildred Anna Rosalie Tuker (1862-1957).   Educated privately before studying moral sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge, she was first published in 1887 and continued to work as a writer for over fifty years.  A first class scholar, as well as a firmly committed militant suffragette WSPU sup510ap2da0WL._SY445_porter and generous backer of the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, she lived for many years in Rome, which became her second home.   There she shared life with Hope Malleson, with whom she wrote the well regarded Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome (1897-1900).  Her other most important works were The School of York in 1887, The Liturgy in Rome in 1897, Cambridge in 1907, Ecce Mater in 1915, The Liturgy in Rome in 1925 and Past and Future of Ethics in 1938. Her articles on Catholicism were also published in a wide range of periodicals such as Hibbert’s Journal and the Fortnightly Review.  She was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Arcadia, Rome and a Lady of Justice of the Order of St John of Jerusalem as well as being on the expert advisers panel of the Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women in 1927.

Within the suffrage movement, Mildred Tuker took part in many marches and lobbying of MPs, and contributed a large number of articles to suffrage papers, especially on the 51HJN0Wl9cL._SY445_historical position of women, particularly in the Christian religion, and the theological and ethical rationale (or lack of it!).  Such publications typically brought floods of appreciation and enquiries for more information from women of various denominations.  Indeed, she played a considerable part in helping the Free Church feminist pioneer Hatty Baker find material for her own eagerly received work Women in the Ministry. Especially welcomed was her book Ecce Mater, which, in tracing early Christian history, made a powerful case for the opening up of church ministries to women.  Fulsome tributes came in from all quarters.  ‘We owe you so much’, wrote Emmeline Pankhurst for example, ‘for showing so clearly the real place of women in Christianity’.  Other leading women campaigners such as Charlotte Despard then made wide use of the book in their speeches, whilst requests for precise references and further information increased.

What was particularly helpful and telling about Tuker’s work was its scholarship.  As even the establishment Church Times conceded, in reviewing her article in The Nineteenth Century and After:

Miss M.A.R.Tuker’s article on Women Preachers is a more serious attempt than Miss Turberville’s to defend this argument.  With a great array of learning, she illustrates the extent to which the ministry of women was recognised in the earlier ages of the Church. (Church Times, 9 Dec 1916)

As the suffragette Mary Richardson concluded:

I felt I should write.. and say how I, and I know other militants, appreciate all you do in your writings for the movement.  I know no one else who can help in this way and it so needed now.  (one of many such letters in the Tuker Papers)

Significantly however, as still happens today, more conservative churchwomen worried about whether her work might rock the boat too much.  More ‘advanced’ Catholic women like Alice Abadam may have considered that women’s status within the Church was initimately linked to resistance to women’s advance in other spheres, and might even have pleaded with Mildred Tuker to consider such work as a new translation of the Scriptures.  Others saw such endeavours as too threatening, if not to themselves then to weaker brothers and sisters.  Alice Abadam thus found that when she suggested ‘Miss Tuker’s Ecce Mater‘ as a title for one of her speeches for the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society:

I was begged not to speak on the subject, as it was too controversial.

The CWSS press secretary Blanche Smyth-Pigott wrote to Mildred Tuker in similar terms, expressing the tensions within which Church feminists had to work and the dynamics within Christian feminism as a whole.  Again safe_imageher letter resonates with the kind of difficulties Christian feminist scholars still face today within the Churches, even when they are warmly received for their insightful and well-grounded work more widely:

Our Society (wrote Blanche Smyth-Pigott) is meant to attract the Catholics not discourage them or still worse scandalise them… Do let me only remind you how head and shoulders you are above the average Catholic, and that unless you step gently your influence and your prestige and even your noble motives may be wrongly interpreted to their own hurt by the stupid, at present embittered regarding suffrage, and on the other hand by bigoted enemies of our Faith.  (in Tuker Papers, 30 Dec 1912)

Mildred Tuker worked for a much bigger vision and resisted such collusion with patriarchal interests.  As she wrote, in The Vote (29 Sept 1916), after restrictions on women’s involvement were imposed by the Church of England in the National Mission of Repentance and Hope, this was just another classic example of the ‘millinery’ aspect of male-dominated Christianity:

the straining after the very petty and ineffectual while barely permitting the great and the spiritual… sex considerations take precedence over theological, and… even bishops are males first and bishops afterwards, so that customs are wrongly dubbed ‘Christian’ tradition, which are really masculine tradition.


Source of truth and enlightenment,
we give you thanks for Millicent Tuker,
and for all female scholars who have advanced women’s causes.
Strengthen we pray all women who study, write and teach today,
and open the minds and hearts of all your people to their work,
that we may be drawn into a deeper and clearer understanding of life and faith.
through the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, Amen.

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women of all colours – Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

imagesToday’s Christian feminism is one in which issues of power and race are increasingly connected, as well as those of gender.  Through ‘womanist’, African, Asian and other theological perspectives, we have a much broader, deeper and richer conversation and engagement.  For first-wave feminism was mainly a white, western phenomenon.  Yet not entirely, and hardly so in the USA…

One of the most impressive exceptions to white mainstream Christian feminism was the African-American woman Sojourner Truth (c. 1797 – November 26, 1883).  Named Isabella Baumfree at birth, her parents were both Africans taken into slavery and she herself had four different owners, before escaping with her infant daughter in 1826.  After going to court to recover her son, she then became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.

On June 1, 1843, Truth changed her name to Sojourner Truth , telling her friends: The Sojourner-Truth-c-1797-1883-Human-Rights-ActivistSpirit calls me, and I must go.’  She became a Millerite Adventist, and left to travel and preach about the abolition of slavery.  Like other abolitionists, she also spoke urgently about gender equality issues.  Her best known speech, delivered extemporaneously, was ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron.  Other speeches however were also very powerful, regularly drawing on Scriptural imagery.    In September 7, 1853, when she spoke with particular reference to the story of Esther,  young men greeted her with ‘a perfect storm’, hissing and groaning.  In response, Truth said,

You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither. 

Sojourner Truth was therefore anything but a shrinking violet, as a woman or an Afro-American.  Indeed, in 1858, when someone interrupted a speech and accused her of being a man, she opened her blouse and revealed her breasts, dumbfounding her opposition.   During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, and, afterwards, worked unsuccessfully to secure land grants for former slaves, for prison reform, and capital punishment.  Her speech on the 8th Anniversary of Negro Freedom in 1871 expressed something of her outlook.   Beginning with a little background about her life. Sojourner recounted how her mother told her to pray to God that she may have good masters and mistresses. She then told how her masters were not good to her, about how she was whipped for not understanding English, and how she would question God why he had not made her masters be good to her.  She admitted to the audience that she had once hated white people, but that once she met her final master, Jesus, she was filled with love for everyone. Once slaves were emancipated, she knew her prayers had been answered.  She then went on to her main focus, proposing that black people were properly supported with adequate resources and given their own land.  Sadly, it is a cry which has still properly to be heard.

400px-Harriet_Tubman_by_Squyer,_NPG,_c1885Harriet Tubman (1822 – March 10, 1913) is now an American icon.  Born Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross into slavery, like Sojourner Truth, she too was badly mistreated.  Early in her life, she indeed suffered a severe head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. This caused disabling epileptic-type seizures, headaches and powerful visionary and dream experiences, which occurred throughout her life.   More positively, as a child she developed a passionate faith in God. Like other abolitionists, she rejected the interpretation of New Testament texts that urged slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the Old Testament stories of deliverance.

In the fall of 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped to Philadelphia from Maryland.  It was a challenging but deeply rewarding experience.  As she commented years later:

When I found I had crossed that (Pennsylvania) line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.

She went on to make about thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved Harriet_Tubman_Reward_Notice_1849family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.  Traveling by night, Tubman (or ‘Moses’, as she was called by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) ‘never lost a passenger’.   In the midst of great danger, she was upheld by her religious faith, even using spirituals as means of warning and communication.  When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she also helped guide fugitives to freedom in present-day Southern Ontario in Canada. She also worked with John Brown, who called her ‘General Tubman’, in planning the raid on Harpers Ferry.

When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 750 slaves in South Carolina.  She was insistent on the need for Abraham Lincoln and other leaders to see through the call to justice by releasing slaves in the south:

God won’t let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing.  Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That’s what master Lincoln ought to know.

After the war, Harriet Tubman then retired to the family home in Aubur , New York,  where she cared for her aging parents.  She became active however in the women’s 260px-Nacwc_logosuffrage movement until illness overtook her.  When the National Federation of Afro-American Women (later the National Association of Colored Women) was founded, Harriet Tubman was the keynote speaker at its first meeting.  She described her actions during and after the Civil War, and used the sacrifices of countless women throughout modern history as evidence of women’s equality to men.   A white woman once asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, and received the telling reply: ‘I suffered enough to believe it’[

Near the end of her life, Harriet lived in a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped found years earlier in the possibilities of resistance.  Scandalously, as it seems to us now, despite her years of astonishing service, she never received a regular salary and was for years denied compensation.    Her constant humanitarian work for her family and former slaves, meanwhile, kept her in a state of constant poverty, and she did not receive a pension for her service in the Civil War until 1899.  Later Americans have been kinder to her memory and Harriet Tubman is now rightly a major national hero, as well as an immense inspiration to oppressed people everywhere.  The US Episcopal Church calendar of saints remembers Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman annually, together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, on July 20. The Lutheran Church in the USA also remembers Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth on March 10.

The final word I leave to another great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who worked closely together with Harriet Tubman in mutual admiration.   For it expresses well the difference between the feminism of more comfortably-placed people and that of the deeply oppressed.  When an early biography of Tubman was being prepared in 1868, Douglass wrote a letter to honour her. It read in part:

You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.


God of liberation,
who set your people Israel free,
we give thanks for Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman,
and for all who have untied the bonds of  slavery and oppression.
We give thanks for their inner strength, courage and determination.
We pray for all who are in captivity today
and for all who work for their release.
May your kingdom come where the last are first
and every child is restored to the fullness of life,
in your image.  Amen.

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the first ordained – Constance Coltman Todd

In recent understandable Anglican excitement about female priests and bishops, it can be forgotten that other Christian traditions had ‘made a track’. Inspiration and lessons can still be learned from them…

Constance Coltman (nee Todd) (1889-1969) was one of the first women ordained toM814678-01 mainstream Christian ministry in Britain, through the Congregational Union of England and Wales, at the King’s Weigh House on 17 September 1917.  She also followed other pioneers. A decade earlier for instance, Gertrude von Petzold became minister at Narborough Road Free Christian (Unitarian) church in Leicester, after studying at Manchester College, Oxford. A generation earlier still, in 1880, Caroline Soule had been ordained by Glasgow Universalists.

Constance Todd’s story highlights various aspects of the Christian feminist struggle. Firstly, for example, her background was a source of both strength and challenge. Born in Putney, London, she was thus encouraged by her family to learn and use her gifts, particularly by her parents: George Todd headmaster and educational administrator, and Emily Ellerman, one of the first generation of women to study medicine. Her family’s love of travel also nurtured early and strong international outlook. On the other hand, whilst brought up as a Presbyterian, as she became conscious of her call to ministry, she began to realise that her own Church was not sympathetic, despite beginning to discuss female deacons and elders. When that door closed, she visited the principal of (the then Congregational Church’s) Mansfield College, Oxford, W. B. Selbie, and convinced him that her vocation was genuine.  This clash between divine call and denominational loyalty was, and still is, common.  Of the 18 other women ordained in the Congregational Union of England and Wales before 1939 for example, 11 were from Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist backgrounds, where the path to ordained ministry was not yet possible.

Secondly, Constance’s ministerial career both broke new ground but also exposed the continuing restrictions which exist even for those who do ‘break through the sacred ordained ceiling’.  After her ordination, presided over by William E. Orchard (a Presbyterian, who later became a Roman Catholic priest) and assisted by four Congregationalist ministers, she still had to receive full acceptance. Her candidacy for the Ministry of Word and Sacraments had King's_Weigh_House_Chapel_Plaque, happily tested and accepted by the King’s Weigh House congregation in Mayfair. Yet this was in many other ways a pioneer ministry, shared with her husband Claud, not at the King’s Weigh House itself but with its East End mission outpost in Darby Street, Wapping. Moreover her ordination had not received prior recognition (this had to wait another couple of months with the Congregational Union more widely) and the minister at Darby Street had stayed away from that occasion, uneasy that her call was irregular. As such, Constance’s story reflects the way in which, as URC minister Kirsty Thorpe has put it, ‘new developments in women’s ministry often happen on the edge of irregularity’. Nor was the sacrificial ministry at Darby Street, which took a toll on Constance’s health, the end of the ministry in the edges of church and life which she exercised. In 1922 she and her husband Claud started another trying ministry, seeking to revive the declining church at Greville Place, Kilburn, before moving within three years to Cowley Road, Oxford. It was part of trend which has been demonstrated ever since, where ordained females are often asked to take on, or only able to find ministries in difficult settings. Indeed a 1936 report on the ministry of women by the Congregational Union noted that several ordained women had received calls from churches in financial difficulties that could not offer an adequate salary for a man. Constance was not alone in taking on difficult ministries in mission settings. She is not alone today.

Thirdly, in a more positive way, Constance also helped model the ministry of mutuality which Hatty Baker had earlier espoused.   Her husband, Claud Coltman, was ordained alongside her, the day before their marriage. Thereby they were pioneers together as an ordained married couple in ministry. For at this time women were typically expected to give up paid employment on their marriage, Active ministry, marriage and motherhood was not something her female ministerial contemporaries achieved.   Again however, it came at a cost. Constance managed this partly because she and Claud operated a ministerial job-share, living on one ministerial stipend, whilst she used her private money to subsidise the household.  Even today, many married couples in ministry struggle with similar practical and spiritual issues.

Fourthly, whilst not a campaigner, Constance’s ministry was not simply based in her own church, but engaged with the major issues of the day. Whilst she was not an active suffragist, she supported the suffrage movement, and was particularly supportive of younger women who felt called to exercise leadership. Generations of women ordinands were helped by her in their academic preparation and in 1927 Coltman was elected president of the new Fellowship of Women Ministers, and in 1930, she helped to fouLogo_2nd the interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women. In the 1950s she even learned Swedish so as to support women seeking ordination in the Church of Sweden.  A lifelong pacifist, throughout her active life Constance was also involved in peace movements, particularly as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as a vice-president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and as one of the founders of the Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Finally, and again as a pioneer of developments which would take much wider and deeper booksform in a later era, Constance Coltman contributed to Christian feminist thought. A good friend of the leading Anglican Christian feminist pioneer Maud Royden, she notably contributed a chapter to Royden’s book The Church and Women, published in 1924.  Writing a Free Church contribution, she rightly identified the Reformation as a ‘two-edged sword in the cause of the ministry of women.’ For Constance, with her ecumenical outlook, the Reformation’s ending of Mariolatry had weakened the status of Protestant women. Contemporary Nonconformist ministers were vulnerable to opposition by one or two ‘protesting church members’, she declared with cool realism, so a woman could nearly always be prevented from receiving a call. Constance believed that women had a distinctive contribution to bring to the interpretation and commendation of Christian theology. As in other elements of her life and ministry, she thus opened up the door through which later generations would walk.


God of new beginnings,
we give thanks for Constance Coltman,
and for all who have been female pioneers in ordained ministry.
Help us to honour and be encouraged by their good examples,
that we may continue to grow and develop
in the power of the Holy Spirit,
who calls us to use all our gifts ever more deeply
in the service of love and re-creation, Amen.

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finding Christ in prison – Helen Sprott and Fred Hankinson

Why did militant women’s disillusionment with the Church bring deliberate provocation and rage, and why was the Church made such a target (although far from the only one)?

imagesThe answer lies partly in personal experiences, especially those of suffragette prisoners, whose particular religious sensibilities were quickened by Holloway and other jails. For on the creative level, as reflected in several suffragette testimonies, the experience of the struggle and its sufferings led some to a heightened sense of themselves and their perceived mission.  (see left the prison brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst: a literal badge of honour for ex-prisoners, backing a broad arrow enameled in WSPU colours (purple, green and white) with a portcullis, the medieval gate that is the traditional symbol of Parliament)

Such suffragette reflection was commonly phrased in Christian language. Holloway-PrisonThe first time she went into the prison chapel at Holloway, remarked Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence for example, she saw six or seven hundred women there, and could not pick out the suffragettes. It was a revelation, she said:

No claim left, no sign of education left, no distraction of any kind – everything swept away, except humanity and womanhood I felt like a wave in a great sea, the sea of Humanity – great, restless, infinite, unfathomable! Oh how I longed in that chapel to get up, just as I was, in my prison clothes I knew I could have made them understand the Gospel. It was a wonderful sight! That congregation clothed in the dress of shame. There, over the altar, the picture of the human God, executed as a criminal between two thieves; I knew perfectly well that the drama of the Cross and Passion, infinitely less in degree – as I felt very deeply during those Passion week services we had in church – infinitely less in degree, but the same drama, was being worked out there.
(Votes for Women, 23 April 1909)

Prison was not therefore without its spiritual consolations. As Olive Walton’s diary during her imprisonment in Aylesbury prison shows, the time to talk and reflect together as women could be turned to good effect. As she noted in her entry for 12 May 1912:

Not so hot. Church twice. Sit about outside and listen to experiences and interesting arguments in theology. (Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London)

399784Many other accounts of prison experiences were similarly full of the spiritual sustenance found by hunger strikers in their Christian faith and the prayers of others (cf. for example, Constance Lytton in Prisons and Prisoners, pp.193, 276 and Mary Richardson in Laugh a Defiance, p.147).

Suffragette sentences were also occasionally lightened by such visitors as Fred Hankinson, the Unitarian minister of Kentish Town, who acted as an unofficial chaplain to the militants.  Raised in an Unitarian atmosphere, he became as a result, he said, ‘without knowing it a Suffragist.’ Brought up amongst seven sisters (one of whom was a close friend of George Bernard Shaw, to whom Shaw dedicated his play St.Joan), and educated in a mixed school at first, ‘Hank’ remembered startling his mother at an early age by proclaiming that women ought to have the same rights, or otherwise travel free on the railways! A committed suffragist, and also an enthusiastic supporter of female preachers, he was a very welcome visitor to Holloway and other jails between 1907 (or 1908) and 1913, until he was caught allegedly passing unauthorised information to prisoners. Testimonials in his papers witness to the deep warmth and appreciation that his visits brought to the suffragettes.

The greater part of the prison experience however, was miserable and sometimes horrendous.  In this religion was occasionally used as a means of punishment, with chaplains acting as accessories. According to Katherine Marshall for example, one of a number of clergy daughters who were imprisoned in Holloway:

the first Governor had to retire. He wept and told my husband that the women were nearly driving him mad. We were not allowed to go to Holy Communion for the first few weeks because we were so wicked.
(Suffragette Escapes and Adventures, Museum of London)

This issue was taken up by Helen Sprott, a W.F.L member who was also the Church League branch secretary in Brighton. She wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury after having had great difficulty, along with sixteen others, of receiving communion in Holloway.  In particular she complained about a letter from the chaplain which had stated that:

while recognising that we committed these unlawful deeds from what we held to be good motives, we were nevertheless being justly punished for our wicked deeds.

What was the purpose of chapel and prison chaplains, she asked, for:

those who started the Hunger strike were forbidden chapel (not on account of weakness as they were ordered to remove their baggage, unaided, from one part of the prison to another at some distance, up and down many steps) – but apparently as a punishment.

The Archbishop replied that he had indeed written to advise prison chaplains facing these ‘peculiar’ difficulties, hoping to facilitate rather than hinder the receiving of Holy Communion: advising the prison chaplain, he said, to direct such ladies: to ???????????????what the Prayer Book says about such requirements, and then to leave to them the responsibility.

Such an eirenic spirit was difficult to maintain. Certainly some felt that this still missed the point.  As other correspondence in Davidson’s papers shows, the Archbishop also received rulings from canon lawyers, indicating that the suffragettes, being impenitent about their actions, therefore should not be admitted to holy communion. Above all, the chaplains themselves were at a loss as how to minister in the face of the vitality and determination of the suffragettes, and their reported actions do not show them in a good light. As Jane Terrero recorded:

At one time, so lately as last May, the atmosphere in the Chapel was such that people used to faint in all directions during service, and one Sunday, one of the wardresses fainted and had to be carried out. It was only after a threat to smash the Chapel windows that the Chaplain was induced to have 16 panes of glass taken out I may add he was only just in time.  (Suffragette Fellowship Collection, Museum of London).

In her celebrated book Prisons and Prisoners, Constance Lytton similarly made equally telling comments on the chaplains she encountered.

The Manchester suffragette Miss Edmee Manning hence summed up the feelings of many when she related her prison experiences to fellow workers in the Women’s Freedom League:

The religious instruction at Holloway seemed to be chiefly directed to impressing us that we were all miserable sinners – (laughter). Every Wednesday we had the Commination Service. I had never seen or heard of it before. The chaplain told us that the very best thing we could do was to sit down during our busy lives and think – (laughter) – and it seemed to me we had reached the best place to do it If any of you should go to prison the best advice I can give you is: Be cheerful, meek, a vegetarian, and a Nonconformist. You can be cheered by a Nonconformist minister twice a week.  
(newspaper clipping in Hankinson Papers, unattributed, undated).


God of courage and comfort,
we pray for all who are imprisoned for conscience sake
and for all who support them in their incarceration.
Enable us to be inspired by those who have led the way,
that we too may seek justice and fair conditions for all.
In the name of Jesus, tortured and crucified as a criminal, Amen.

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an ecumenical and inter-religious step forward – Blanche Smythe-Pigott and the United Religious League

Today, ecumenical and inter-religious relationships flourish in many places, both despite, and also because, of continuing tensions and oppressions of various kinds.  Whilst Women's I'faith Group-1still misunderstood by some, such relationships can do much to heal the wider ills of the world as well bring deeper understanding of one another and the world’s great wisdom traditions.  It has been a great personal delight to be part of such growing life and hope.  Women have been at the forefront all over the world (not least in Australia, through interfaith women’s networks such as that, in Sydney, pictured to the right above).  This was not a great part of first-wave Christian feminism, yet at least one feature took significant shape as a sign for the future…

Christian unity was often assumed by all first-wave Christian feminists on many women’s issues.  For whilst the organised ecumenical movement was still to be born, the ecumenical baby was beginning to stir in the womb, notably reflected in such developments as the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910.  For the missionary and women’s movement had much in common and the obstacles they both encountered strengthened their common purpose. Indeed, the women’s movement for some even pointed to a divine unity which crossed the boundaries if Christianity itself.  This was certainly the view of some of those who gathered for the first great meeting of the United Religious League for Women’s Suffrage (URWSS) at the Caxton Hall on 6 November 1913.  Amidst ‘historic antipathies’, reported the Free Church Suffrage Times (December 1913):

Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Friend, Anglican and Nonconformist declared their sense of union in divine consciousness.  “Have we not all one father”, said the Jewish speaker appropriately, and this was the general sense.

‘Everybody’ was indeed said to be present on this occasion, which acted as a great rallying point for most of the leading Church and Jewish feminists (the latter whom had their own Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, begun in November 1912, which also helped promote feminism within Judaism).  Such associations helped challenge particular prejudices.  Thus, at an earlier  URWSS meeting for example, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS) speaker Blanche Smyth-Pigott made her contribution to much surprise.  She alone:

ventured a criticism of “the clergy of all denominations”, so delivering a shock to Protestant notions of priest-ridden women. (Free Church Suffrage Times, Nov 1913)

The work of the URWSS demonstrated the usual disinterest of the establishment press in the women’s struggle, except where militancy and sensationalism was involved.  The Caxton Hall meeting had not only been ‘historic and unique’, but as The Vote commented (14 Nov 1913), it was ‘one of the most impressive ever held in a hall famous for its suffrage meetings’.  The National Week of Prayer organised by the United League, between 1-8 November, was also warmly taken up.  Yet the wider media coverage was negligible: a further incitement for the militants.   Nonetheless further work continued in 1914, with a particularly impressive joint demonstration of religious suffragists in Hyde Park (cf. favourable review in The Vote 26 June 1914).

ecumenismSuch expression of common purpose was not always possible.  In March 1912 for example, a planned march from the Embankment to Trafalgar Square by the Free Church League and London Ethical Societies fell short of its goal.  The Anglicans and Roman Catholics never joined up:

owing to needless apprehension of disturbance… the former, instead of going to the square, proceeded to Westminster Abbey, and attended Evensong, while the latter withdrew altogether.  (The Vote 23 March 1912)

Fleming Williams, the Free Church leaders, then took the obvious opportunity of proclaiming from the plinth of Nelson’s Column the fearlessness of his Church in the face of any circumstances!  A similar demonstration fell apart too in June 1912 when there was a misunderstanding about which society had agreed to give notice to the police.  On this occasion, the Free Church League held a meeting in Hyde Park regardless, but the Catholic Society retreated to more satisfying communion at the Criterion Restaurant.

Such denominational differences and point-scoring were unusual.  For, despite some clear differences, like the women’s movement as a whole, the chief characteristic of the religious leagues was their remarkable complementarity in unity.  It thus deserves at least a footnote in the history of ecumenism and inter-religious relations, as well as within the women’s movement itself.


God of all peoples, races and cultures,
we give you thanks for the united work of the religious suffragists
and for all who have made a track
to the ecumenical and inter-religious relationships enjoyed by so many today.
Strengthen we pray the bonds of unity between Christians
and the relationships of friendship and generosity between peoples of different faith,
that we may cultivate a culture of peace for everyone throughout our world.
In the generous love and neighbourly wisdom at the heart of our faith, Amen.

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temperance and New Zealand – Kate Sheppard

Tribute_to_the_Suffragettes,_Christchurch,_NZ_-_croppedHail Aotearoa New Zealand!  In 1893, New Zealand was the first independent country to give women the vote in modern times.  Pitcairn Island did in 1838, but was not self-governing; nor was the Isle of Man which enfranchised female ratepayers in 1881, nor the Cook Islands which passed women’s suffrage days after New Zealand but held their election a month earlier. Various American states and territories also enfranchised women before 1893.  Franceville enfranchised women when it declared independence in 1889, but was soon under colonial rule.

See above right: the Suffragettes memorial in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand (the figures from left to right are Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, Amey Daldy, Kate Sheppard, Ada Wells, Harriet Morison and Helen Nicol).

As in Australia, suffrage itself did not lead to immediate huge strides in New Zealand.  Women were not eligible to be elected to the House of Representatives (lower house of Parliament) until 1919, nor eligible to be appointed to the Legislative Council (upper house) until 1941. Meanwhile the first Maori female MP (Iriaka Ratana) had to wait until 1949.   Yet New Zealanders helped break the mould and their experience was drawn on elsewhere.  They highlight both the significance of earlier movements such as temperance and the international character and networking of the women’s movement.

Kate_SheppardKatherine (Kate) Wilson Sheppard (1847-1934) was the most prominent member of New Zealand’s suffragists.  Born in Liverpool to Scottish parents, she received a good education, and was noted for her intellectual ability. For a time she also lived with her uncle, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Nairn.  His influence, and that of her mother, helped shape her active religious conscience.   Then, in 1869, several years after her father’s death, she emigrated her family to Christchurch, where she subsequently married.

Kate Sheppard’s career is an outstanding example of the story of many typical Christian women of her generation.  During the early years of her marriage,  she was active in membership of the Trinity Congregational Church, including church visiting, Bible classes and fund-raising.  Her ministry took a new public form however with the arrival of the women’s temperance movement in New Zealand.  From this, Kate was drawn into political campaigns.

Temperance had been a strong force and an active breeding-ground for the women’s movement as a whole in the United States of America.   Founded in 1873 in the USA, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the major driving force.   When, in Wctu_logo1885, Mary Leavitt, an evangelist delegate from the American WCTU, arrived in New Zealand, a local version quickly came into being, with Kate Sheppard as a founding member.   As in the USA, the New Zealand Union soon recognised that proposed social and legislative reforms concerning temperance and the welfare of women and children would be more effective if women could vote and enter Parliament. In 1887 franchise departments were formed within the local unions and Sheppard was appointed national superintendent of the franchise and legislation department, using her formidable organisation, speaking and writing abilities.   At the heart of all was her humanitarian principles and strong sense of justice, reflected in her credo:

All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.

Kate Sheppard herself thus played a considerable part in securing the vote, building on the mass movement of temperance women.   Indeed the Governor of New Zealand, Lord Glasgow, in the passing of the suffrage, honoured her as a political leader, by symbolically presenting to her the pen with which he had signed off on the suffrage bill.  She then returned to the northern hemisphere for a short time, 2-041798natcouncilwomen_5where she met prominent British and American suffragists and gave a number of speeches, as well as attending the World Conference of Woman’s Christian Temperance Unions.   Back in New Zealand. she was then elected president of a new National Council of Women (NCW) of New Zealand. and later headed up the council’s newspaper, the White Ribbon (an international WCTU name and symbol which has a new dynamic role today in the worldwide, male-led, White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women).  Such work added a new level of dynamism to the New Zealand women’s movement.  For the annual NCW conferences were often called the ‘Women’s Parliament’.  An arena for debate on many public issues, it was widely covered by local and national papers.    As Kate Sheppard put it, in her presidential address in 1897:

In Wellington is every year assembled a National Council of men, which holds a session lasting several months.…From that Council women are excluded.…Under these circumstances a National Council which largely represents the thinking and working women of the colony (and which, it may be remarked, costs the country nothing) becomes a necessity. I trust the day is not far distant…when the necessity for men’s councils and women’s councils, as such, will be swept away.’

Sheppard’s social philosophy was expressed in the plethora of articles and pamphlets and she developed.   A variety of issues were taken up, including:  repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1869; the responsibilities of women as citizens; economic independence for married women, education about alcohol; equal wages; reform of government; and the guardianship of children.  In this, the family was seen as the foundation of the state, with the state’s duty therefore being to serve families.   This involved supporting married women’s development.  For, as she remarked:

If the mother is dwarfed, repressed, how can the children grow to their full mental and moral stature?’  (There was) no greater anomaly than the exaltation by men of the vocation of wife and mother on the one hand, while, on the other, the position is by law stripped of all its attractiveness and dignity, and a wife and mother is regarded not only as a “dependent” on her husband’s bounty, but even the children of her own body are regarded as his legal property.

In 1903, Kate Sheppard stepped down from her positions at the National Council of Women due to ill health. She moved to England, intending to retire there, briefly stopping in Canada and the United States.  In London, she was active in promoting women’s suffrage but again began to flag due to failing health.  In 1904 she therefore returned to New Zealand, remaining relatively inactive in political circles, but continuing to write and exercise influence.  Indeed, in 1916, she and a group of other prominent suffragettes were able to revitalise the National Council of Women, which had gone into recess.

34611-rbnzKate Sheppard is a vital element in Aotearoa New Zealand’s progressive heritage.  Her work remains an inspiration, not only there but in the wider world she touched.  She appears on the $10 note in Aotearoa New Zealand, but her better legacy is her continuing feminist challenge:

We are tired of having a ‘sphere’ doled out to us, and of being told that anything outside that sphere is ‘unwomanly’. We want to be natural just for a change … we must be ourselves at all risks.”


God beyond borders,
we give thanks for Kate Sheppard and the women of New Zealand,
and for all female pioneers who empowered others.
Grant that we may treasure all those who have broken new ground
and opened up pathways for others to tread.
May we, and all who long for freedom today,
be strengthened by the good examples of those who have gone before us.
that you will may be done,
and your kingdom come, in every land.
In the power of that love which unites all that is wrongfully separated, Amen.

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the women’s muse – Olive Schreiner

No one writer can represent, or be the focus, of a whole movement.  This is certainly true for first-wave feminism.  As it moved from what Jane Rendall (in The Origins of Modern Feminism) called ‘dynamic evangelicalism’ into a more ‘secular and cooperative’ creed, a 220px-Day,_Fred_Holland_(1864-1933)_-_Edward_Carpenterwhole range of overlapping influences be traced: including American Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman), British Idealism (especially T.H.Green and also Carlyle and Ruskin), eastern mysticism and theosophy, and the ethical secularism of reformers such as Blatchford and Trevor.  Of all the influences on the women’s suffrage movement however, the two great literary prophets were Edward Carpenter and Olive Schreiner.  Both threw off the full traditional Christian orthodoxy in which they were raised (in Carpenter’s case, as an erstwhile curate to F.D.Maurice).  Yet, in different ways, they strove to articulate a holistic approach to a ‘new life’, drawing on their religious inheritance.  As such, they remained inspirations to Christian, as well as other, first-wave feminists…

imagesOlive Schreiner (1855-1920) was a South African author, anti-war campaigner and radical thinker.  She is best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm (1883).  This handled many of the burning issues of the day, including agnosticism, individualism, the aspirations of women, and life on the colonial frontier.   Yet, although she was a freethinker as opposed to a follower of mainstream Christianity, she always remained true to the spirit of the Christian Bible and developed a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements.  As such she connected with a wide spectrum of first-wave feminists.

For the women’s movement, Olive Schreiner’s collection of short allegories, published in 1890, entitled Dreams, were of great import.  Drawing on the South African landscape, these were often full of biblical images and the visualising of a new world.  For, as she expressed it:

I dreamed a dream.  I dreamed I saw a land.  And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand.  And they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were not afraid.  And I saw the women also hold each others hands.  And I said to him beside me, ‘What place is this?’  And he said, ‘This is heaven.’  And I said, ‘Where is it?’  And he answered, ‘On earth.’  And I said, ‘When shall these things be?’  And he answered, ‘In the future’. 

Such writings were frequently read and discussed at suffrage meetings and Schreiner was 9781314274417_p0_v1_s260x420held in great esteem across the movement, and in Co-operative and labour circles (cf. J.K.Jerome, who said, in The Vote 2 Jan 1914, that she, with Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, was one of the three women who had influenced him most).  The most telling reflection of her importance was given by Constance Lytton, recalling a reading of Three Dreams in a Desert by WFL suffragettes in Holloway prison one evening (the inspiration for this blog – see the page ‘why Making a Track’).  No longer an allegory at that moment:

The words hit out a bare literal description of the pilgrimage of women.  It fell on our ears more like an ABC railway guide to our journey than a figurative parable… We dispersed and went back to our hard beds, to the thought of our homes… to the groans and cries of organised women – content.  (Prisons and Prisoners, pp. 156-7)

Schreiner’s writing was of its time and encapsulated many of the cultural contradictions and tensions faced by feminists.  Rebecca West for instance, never afraid to criticise m1nvuLAR31TWUEfxn6xFg6Qmuddled feminist thinking, observed (in The Freewoman 12 October 1912) that Schreiner’s philosophy tended towards a ‘so simple’ attitude and ‘the most undiscriminating asceticism’.  For West, not gainsaking its appeal, Three Dreams in a Desert portrayed an ‘extremely depressing career of Woman… giving their souls up to pain’, and surrendering their personality rather than exploring a more inquiring morality.  Certainly there were ambiguous values in Olive Schreiner’s work and she wrote in a taut, constrained manner.  Yet, as more recent critics such as Laura Chrisman have pointed out, this is consequent on the tight restraints and ambiguities of the culture in which she lived. Edward Carpenter similarly pointed out how realistic Olive Schreiner was:

in her consciousness of the sufferings of Woman the iron has entered her soul.  If she had only be content – like some of the wilder spirits of the movement – to unload on men the vials of her wrath, and to saddle on mankind alone the responsibility for these sufferings, her strain in the cause would have had more delight of battle in it.  But she was too large-minded not to see that if there is to be any blame in such a matter, the blame must be accepted by Woman herself just as much as Man.  (My Days and Dreams, pp.230-1)


God of Holy Dreaming,
we give thanks for Olive Schreiner,
and for all prophets, poets and writers of your new world.
Grant to us a similar spirit of inquiry and imagination,
courage and commitment,
that we too can help inspire one another
to work for the realisation of your true common-wealth,
in which we may walk together hand in hand and not be afraid.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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