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 them 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.