Without the involvement of religious people, it is hard to see how first-wave feminism could have advanced. It owed so much to religious motivation and networks and also needed religious support in order to break through into quarters which were not immediately sympathetic. In doing so, in turn the wider movement helped support and accelerate progress within the Churches…
The Revd. Claude and Gertrude Hinscliff were the driving force behind the creation of the (Anglican) Church League for Women’s Suffrage. Although, in one sense, the Church League was a product of the wider women’s movement, it played a significant part in broadening and deepening the campaign for the vote and in the advancing women’s ministry and women’s rights more generally. Indeed, in itself, any radical Anglican campaigning body which comprised nearly 6 000 members deserves recognition. This is all the more the case when within its ranks were supporters of all kinds of suffragism, including the two foremost ‘martyrs’ of the suffragette struggle (Emily Wilding Davison and Constance Lytton), one of the leading parliamentary advocates (George Lansbury), six active bishops (led by the CLWS President Edward Hicks), and several other notable figures. It also enabled fruitful dialogue between feminism and the Christian Church. Reducing the level of disillusionment felt by many churchwomen, it provided them with continuing meaningful fellowship and support. It was also the cradle of women’s ordination as well as a major impetus for female preachers, female lay leadership and deaconesses.
The impetus for the Church League emerged especially in Women’s Freedom League (WFL) circles, particularly after the long WFL vigil outside Parliament between 5 July and 28 October 19o9. A small group of women had already been meeting earlier that year for prayer and intercession: ‘conscious of the need for Divine support in a struggle which taxed faith and courage’ (CLWS: What it is and How it works’, CLWS Monthly Paper, June 1913). Claude Hinscliff, one of the most regular supporters of the WFL pickets (which included his wife Gertude), talked with others at the vigil and the idea germinated, culminating in an enthusiastic opening meeting on 2 December 1909 at the Essex Hall. For as Margaret Nevinson expressed it:
Why not a religious league for what was clearly a religion to many? Why should not the prayers of the faithful strengthen the hands of those who worked and suffered? Why not a Church League? (‘How the Church League was Founded’, Monthly Paper May 1913)
The aims and objects of the CLWS closely corresponded with those of the WFL: not merely seeking to ‘secure for Women the Parliamentary Vote as it is or may be granted to men’, but also to ‘use the power thus obtained to establish equality of rights and opportunities between the sexes’ and to ‘promote the moral, social, and industrial well-being of the community.’ (Monthly Paper May 1912) Its methods were primarily educational and devotional. Special intercessions were made by CLWS members at holy communion on the first Sunday of each month. A huge number of meetings were held, centrally and by branches across the country. Pamphlets, information and news was distributed widely, protests made (notably against force-feeding of suffragettes and against legislation such as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’) and support given in different ways to various aspects of the suffrage campaign. The League also offered space for the discussion of theology, pressed for changes in church government and the marriage liturgy and was the cradle of a variety of new developments in women’s ministry.
Claude Hinscliff was the first organising secretary of the Church League, working tirelessly until the strains and ill-health took its toll. Other prominent figures included Bishop Hicks (as President), Maude Royden, Frances Sterling, Ethel Seymour Bennett, Frank Shewell Cooper, Maud Bell, Lieut and Joan Cather, the Revd F.M.Green, the Revd C Llewellyn Smith and, with Hinscliff’s retirement, Louisa Corben as organiser. There were over 100 branches by the eve of war in 1914, including in Ireland. Several branches had their own banners, such as the Hampstead one (see left), designed by Laurence Housman and probably worked on by his sister Clemence (‘the chief banner-maker for the Suffrage Atelier’ according to Laurence). When the limited suffrage was on its way in 1918, the League then changed its name to the League of the Church Militant, seeking to enable its wider objectives.
Much more could be said about the League’s work, life and theology. In summary, four concerns predominated (see the article ‘Why the Church League exists’ Monthly Paper June 1913). Firstly, the League saw itself as an outflowing of the teaching of Jesus, ‘impelled by the Christian ethic to overcome the subjection of one sex to another’, just as members had been compelled to promote causes such as temperance and social purity. Secondly, it was felt that, to bring liberty rather than licence, the League should try to influence the women’s movement from within. Thirdly, the League brought the power of paryer and corporate communion. Finally, and most significantly, the League saw itself as banding together ‘for the honour of the Church’. For although it felt that ‘the debt of women to the Church can hardly be overestimated’, it recognised that the Church was regraded by many as ‘indifferent or even hostile to women’s self-realisation and service’. Hence, in a cry still applicable today in different circumstances, the Monthly Paper declared, in June 1913:
if our Church League can do something, and it has already done much, to make it clear that Church people do really care about justice, we may yet be recognised, in quarters whence we are now looked upon askance, as having striven, and not in vain, to retain for the Church the love and allegiance of many who have proved in the past its most loyal and devoted servants.
God of true communion ,
we give you thanks for Claude and Gertrude Hinscliff,
and for all Anglicans who have contributed to the women’s movement.
Strengthen the commitment of all who witness to justice today,
deepen their faith and grant them your peace and protection.
In the name of Jesus, born of Mary, Amen.