In some ways, first-wave Christian feminism was a radical continuation of the Victorian ‘woman’s mission’. Yet it also marked a break from it with a new sense of self and consciousness. For, even at the end of the 19th century, for most women, religious commitment might lead to a great variety of social endeavour, but rarely to conscious self-assertion. Much of the foundations of this change lay in women’s experience of poverty and public life.
Only, wrote Margaret Nevinson, when women such as she had worked as Poor Law Guardians, doctors, inspectors, councillors and so forth, had they been truly:
free to gaze into the abyss: to see life in all its horror and degradation, in all its muddle and foolery under uni-sexual legislation.
(‘The Present Position of Women’, in The Vote 11 March 1913)
Margaret Wynne Nevinson (1858-1932) was certainly a good example of this changing cohort of religious women. A clergy daughter, she had immensely benefited from the encouragement of her father, the Revd Timothy Jones, a classical scholar who taught her Latin and Greek alongside her five brothers, and, against the traditional views of her mother, supported her further education and entry into public life.
After a time as a governess and teacher, and campaigning for the Married Women’s Property Act, Margaret married a childhood friend, the radical journalist Henry Woodd Nevinson, in 1884. Whilst this was to become an unhappy marriage, it drew her into writing and she became a journalist herself. Significantly, she and her husband, encouraged by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, sharing a vocation similar to others in this period, then went to live and serve among the poor of the east end of London for a few years. Whilst they moved away to become part of the Hampstead intelligentsia in 1887, this ‘gaze into the abyss’ undoubtedly shaped their life from then on. Margaret Nevinson thus took up many roles, including being a school manager for 25 years and a highly active Hampstead poor law guardian. A lively writer she also publicised issues of poverty. One of her stories indeed became a one-act play called In the Workhouse and helped change the law. This dramatised the fact that a married woman could be compelled to remain in a workhouse simply because of her husband’s marital authority. Gender-specific legislation discriminating against married women was also a strong feature of her writings, through pamphlets such as The Legal Wrongs of Women and her thinly disguised autobiographical stories, Fragments of Life (1922).
Margaret Nevinson was also a very active suffragist, including as a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, the Cymric Suffrage Union, the Women Writers’ Suffrage League., and the Women’s Freedom League (of which she was a founder member). A committed Christian, she often employed classical and biblical themes and participated in such passive resistance as the suffrage picket outside parliament. She wrote many articles for The Vote, the WFL journal, and many suffrage pamphlets including A History of the Suffrage Movement: 1908-1912, Ancient Suffragettes and The Spoilt Child and the Law. Later, as a keen pacifist, she helped treat wounded Belgian soldiers and became a vice-president of the Women’s Peace Crusade. Her most significant subsequent public service was, however, as a pioneer female justice of the peace, becoming, in June 1920,the first woman in London to adjudicate at criminal petty sessions.
According to the autobiography of her son, the artist and conscientious objector, Christopher Wynne Nevinson, biographer, she was:
always a pioneer, from her shingled hair and hatred of lace curtains to her espousal of modern art, European outlook, and commitment to social justice.
God of transforming justice,
we give thanks for Margaret Wynne Nevinson
and for all who have written and worked for peace and an end to poverty.
Grant that we too may not be afraid to look into the abyss of pain and evil.
Give us courage and strength to play our part in the sharing of your kingdom,
through your transforming love in Jesus Christ, Amen.