Successful social and political movements are typically broad-based, engaging people at all levels of society. Sometimes, as in the British women’s suffrage struggle, more militant figures get undue attention. Yet without patient and persistent work of all kinds there is little progress. Building alliances with, and leadership by, those in or close to power is also crucial. The stories of those who have worked ‘from within’ also encourage us to use whatever position or influence we may hold…
Lady Frances Balfour (1858-1931) is perhaps the most striking example of dynamic first-wave christian feminist leadership at the highest levels of society. Daughter of the 8th Duke of Argyll, and nurtured in a strongly Liberal political family, she also married into the aristocratic Balfour family, leaders in Conservative political life. A redoubtable Scot, Frances suffered from hip and walking difficulties from childhood. Yet this complex series of society relationships and health challenges never prevented her from speaking out for women. Even as a child, through anti-slavery work, she was involved in social reform campaigns, and from the 1880s she became the highest-place woman in Britain in leadership in the women’s suffrage movement (and a President of the largest body, the National Union of Suffrage Societies between 1896-1914). Unlike many others, she also considered the subsequent enfranchisement of women over 30 in 1918 to be a job half done and she consequently continued the struggle. Only one of two women appointed to the Royal Commission On Divorce and Matrimonial Causes (1910-1912), she also continued working for the wide spectrum of women’s rights through the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland (being its president in 1921 until her death).
Such work, in her social context, was a continual struggle against opposition. As she herself commented:
I don’t remember any date, in which I was not a passive believer in the rights of women to be recognised as full citizens in this country. No one ever spoke to me on the subject except as shocking or ridiculous, more often as an idea that was wicked, immodest and unwomanly.
Lady Frances was more than able to cope. As Norman Maclean, a personal friend, noted:
She had a personal magnetism and a gift of making friends no less remarkable than her courage and her crusading spirit… A mistress of invective, … [she] wielded the dagger of sarcastic wit with the same zest as her ancestors had wielded the broadsword.
(entry in Dictionary of National Biography).
She marched (including leading the ‘Mud March’ of February 1907), gave on average three speeches a week at suffragist meetings all across Britain, lobbied incessantly in the corridors of power, and wrote prolifically for the cause.
Lady Frances also took a very close interest in her native Church of Scotland, attending Assembly sessions and campaigning for women to become Elders and to be allowed into the ministry. Not surprisingly, she thus became the President of the non-denominational Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage when it formed in 1912, doing her best to rally Scottish Christians in greater numbers. For, as she sadly observed, in her autobiography Ne Obliviscaris (1930):
in what great reforming effort has the Church of Christ ever led?
Humbly, she reflected on her own contribution:
My gifts, such as they were, lay in being a sort of liaison officer between Suffrage and the Houses of Parliament, and being possessed of a good platform voice.
So may we play our own part with whatever gifts we too are given.
Eternal source of transformation,
You lead us with compassion.
As you inspired Lady Frances Balfour,
so strengthen all in positions of influence and leadership
to raise their voices for truth and freedom
and use their power for good.
Help us all to share such zest for life
and to use our gifts in your service
for the needs of others.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.