Ain’t I a Woman?

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionists Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only have five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, namely Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regimen called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they become safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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Unfinished Business: Sylvia Pankhurst

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst received two mentions at the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library, but not for her role with the Suffragette movement, as one might expect. Whilst the curators referenced her involvement with the Votes for Women campaign, their focus revealed the scandal caused by her “illegitimate” child with an Italian man who she lived with but never married. Her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), despite being a campaigner for women’s rights, disowned her daughter. The exhibition also displayed a painting by Sylvia Pankhurst, inspired by the harsh conditions of women’s workplaces in the early 20th century.

Born in Old Trafford, Manchester on 5th May 1882, Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst was the second of three daughters for Richard (1835-98) and Emmeline Pankhurst, future founders of the Independent Labour Party. Estelle, who preferred her middle name Sylvia, attended Manchester High School for Girls with her sisters Christabel (1880-1958) and Adela (1885-1961). The sisters shared a passion for fine art, and all three became suffragettes, along with their mother. Sylvia, who attended the Royal College of Art between 1904 and 1906 after winning a scholarship, noted the lack of opportunities for women in the art sector. Determined to do something about this, Sylvia and her friends established the East London Confederation of Suffragettes, which later amalgamated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Aiming to be a “painter and draughtsman in the service of the great movements for social betterment”, Sylvia produced many of the banners, leaflets and posters for the WSPU, who she began working for full time in 1906. One of her most famous designs for the union is the “angel of freedom” motif that appeared on badges, jewellery, chinaware and printed materials. The trumpeting angel usually appeared on a green, purple and white background. These were the identifying colours of the WSPU introduced by the Bristol-born suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) in 1908.

WSPU Membership Card

Another example of Sylvia’s work for the union is the WSPU Member’s Card. Sylvia drew an illustration of a group of women holding a banner that said “Votes, Votes, Votes!” The date of production is uncertain, but due to the lack of WSPU colours, Sylvia likely designed the card early on in her WSPU career. Below the drawing is written the union’s purpose: “Women demand the right to vote, the pledge of citizenship and basis of all liberty…” All women were issued a membership card on signing up with the WSPU. They were also required to sign another card to pledge not to support any political candidate until women could vote.

Cradley Heath Chainmaker, 1907

In 1907, Sylvia toured the industrial towns in England and Scotland. She discovered the female workers were underpaid and unfairly treated in comparison to their male colleagues. Chainmakers, for example, received a pittance and many worked from home because they also needed to look after their children. In some instance, the children worked alongside their mothers for long hours. Sylvia painted portraits of many of these women, including a chain maker at a shop in Cradley Heath. The artwork reveals the poor working conditions the women faced every day, emphasised by the bucket of boiling water precariously balanced on a pile of bricks.

After her tour, Sylvia settled in Leicester where she met Alice Hawkins (1863-1946), a suffragette whose statue now stands in Leicester Market Square. Soon, she befriended another suffragette, Mary Gawthorpe (1881-1973), “a merry militant saint” with whom Sylvia established a WSPU presence in the city. Unlike her mother and sisters, Sylvia preferred to concentrate on local campaigns rather than national. For this reason, on her return to London, she set up the East London Federation of the WSPU, assisted by fellow campaigner Amy Bull (1877-1953).

Sylvia regularly wrote articles for the official WSPU newspaper Votes for Women. Founded in 1907 by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), the newspaper updated members and supporters of the WSPU on their latest successes and plans. Many suffragettes sold the monthly paper on the street to passers-by for 3d until it became a weekly paper, after which the price dropped to 1d. 

As well as writing for the newspaper, Sylvia documented the history of the WSPU from 1905 until 1910, which she published under the title The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement. The book, which is still in print, gives a just and accurate account of the WSPU’s progress, at least from Sylvia’s point of view, and lets the reader see behind the scenes to discover what animated the protestors. First published in 1911, the book does not contain the outcome of the suffragette’s campaign, yet Sylvia aimed to fuel the reader’s passion for their cause. 

Sylvia Pankhurst c. 1910

In 1913, Sylvia spoke at the Albert Hall about the working conditions for workers in Dublin. In so doing, she involved herself with the Labour Party, which went against the rules of the WSPU. The union identified as independent, and its members were forbidden from having political affiliations, at least publically. Worried that Sylvia’s alliance with the Labour Party would damage the WSPU’s reputation, Emmeline and Christabel removed Sylvia from its membership.

Undeterred by her family’s rejection, Sylvia continued to campaign for Votes for Women. At the age of 24, the police arrested Sylvia for her militant approaches. Over the next few years, Sylvia found herself in prison on fourteen more occasions. Between February 1913 and July 1914, Sylvia went on hunger strike during her imprisonments and described the painful force-feeding she endured in magazine articles. Despite not being a member of the WSPU, she received the union’s Hunger Strike Medal for “valour”.

During 1914, Sylvia grew concerned about the WSPU’s campaign, which focused solely on women’s rights. She wished to tackle wider issues than women’s suffrage and aligned with the Labour Party. Labour politician Keir Hardie (1856-1915) supported Sylvia’s passions for women’s rights, amongst other things, and the pair developed a close relationship.

Despite her disapproval of the WSPU, Sylvia continued to work with the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which later changed its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation when it broadened its politics. At the suggestion of the American suffragette Zelie Emerson (1883-1969), Sylvia founded the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper (later the Worker’s Dreadnought). The first copies appeared in March 1914 on the same day Sylvia spoke at a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square. As well as women and workers’ rights, the paper campaigned against the impending war.

When the war began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst enthusiastically campaigned in favour of military conscription. This horrified Sylvia, a staunch pacifist, who expressed her views in articles for the WSPU newspaper, now named Britannia. Although the government encouraged women to take on the work left behind by the male soldiers, many women lost their previous jobs due to the war. Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes established a toy factory and offered work to these women. They also demanded allowances for women whose husbands were away at war. In 1915, Sylvia attended and spoke at the International Women’s Peace Congress, held at The Hague, but this lost her many followers who believed they should support the war effort.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sylvia moved in with an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (1875-1954). They lived in Woodford Green in North East London, commemorated by a blue plaque opposite Woodford station. Sylvia and Corio shared left-wing political ideas; in 1920, Sylvia’s organisation, now named the Workers’ Socialist Federation, hosted the first meeting of the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International). With women’s rights still in mind, Sylvia encouraged her followers to adopt Communism, saying “In order that mothers and those who are organisers of the family life of the community may be adequately represented, and may take their due part in the management of society, a system of household Soviets shall be built up.”

In 1927, Sylvia gave birth to a son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst (1927-2017). Her mother, Emmeline, held the opinion that children should not be born out of wedlock. Sylvia, on the other hand, objected to marriage and taking a husband’s surname. When Emmeline asked for the name of Richard’s father, Sylvia responded: “an old dear friend whom I have loved for years.” She declined to give her mother Silvio Corio’s name, and Emmeline refused to speak to her daughter for the rest of her life.

Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, London, against British policies in India, 1932

By 1930, Sylvia lost interest in communist politics but continued to hold anti-fascist views. She also held anti-colonialism opinions, speaking against British policies in India at a protest in Trafalgar Square in 1932. The same year, she helped establish the Socialist Workers’ National Health Council. The organisation, which had connections with the Labour Party, campaigned for a National Health Service. Since the creation of the NHS, the organisation, now known as the Socialist Health Association, continues to support the health service in politics. As of 2020, the GP Brian Fisher is the chair.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), Sylvia responded by publicly supporting Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the Emperor of Ethiopia. She wrote articles about the invasion in newspapers and raised funds for projects, such as the first Ethiopian teaching hospital. She took a great interest in Ethiopian life and collected information about their art and culture. Eventually, she published her findings in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History in 1955.

After the liberation in 1937, Sylvia continued supporting Ethiopia and encouraged their union with the former Italian Somalia. MI5 monitored Sylvia’s correspondence closely, fearing her leftist ideals would pose problems for the British government. In a letter written in 1948, the secret service discussed tactics for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”, particularly after learning Selassie considered her a friend and adviser. Nothing much came of MI5’s investigations, and in 1956, Selassie invited Sylvia and her son to move to the capital city Addis Ababa.

Sylvia set up the Ethiopia Observer, a monthly journal documenting the cultural developments in the country. Her son Richard began working at the University College of Addis Ababa and later founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In 1957, Richard married Rita Eldon and had two children, Alula (1962) and Helen (1964). Sadly, Sylvia passed away before she could meet her grandchildren.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s grave

After she died in 1960 aged 78, Sylvia Pankhurst received a state funeral, becoming the only foreigner buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa. In a speech, Selassie called her “an honorary Ethiopian”, and provided a burial plot in a section reserved for patriots.

Sylvia Pankhurst was not as famous as her mother and older sister but her name is listed on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London. Whilst Sylvia did help to improve lives for women, the British Library focused on the reaction caused by her decision not to marry the father of her child. At the time, people looked down on women in Sylvia’s position, yet she did not let this deter her. Sylvia continued to campaign and behave as she did before the birth of her son, albeit estranged from her family.

Richard continued his mother’s work by editing the Ethiopia Observer, and in 1962, founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. From 1976 to 1986, Richard lived in England, where he researched at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2004, he received an OBE for his services to Ethiopian studies and earned the honorary title “Dejazmach Benkirew” by the Union of Tigraians of North America. Sylvia’s grandson Alula is an Ethiopian scholar with a PhD in Social Anthropology from Manchester University. Her grand-daughter Helen is a women’s rights activist and earned a CBE in 2019 for services to gender equality. 

Sylvia Pankhurst lives on through her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who share her passion for an equal world. She also lives on through the musical Sylvia, written in honour of the centenary of Representation of the People Act 1918 and the end of the First World War.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Unfinished Business: Mary Macarthur

The British Library briefly mentioned Mary Reid Anderson (née Macarthur) in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, which celebrated the milestones overcome by women in their fight for equality. Early trade unions excluded women workers from their members. Unhappy about this, Mary Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers, which improved the working lives of many women. She also founded the union’s newspaper The Woman Worker, which gained 20,000 subscribers.

Mary Macarthur

Mary Macarthur, born on 13th August 1880, grew up in Glasgow as the eldest of six children to John Duncan Macarthur and Anne Elizabeth Martin. Her father owned a drapery business and afforded to send his daughter to Glasgow Girls’ High School. During her school years, Macarthur developed a passion for journalism while working as an editor on the school magazine. She decided then that she wanted to become a full-time writer and, after finishing at the high school, continued her studies abroad in Germany. On her return home, Macarthur briefly worked for her father as a bookkeeper, but this was not the position she desired in life.

In 1903, Macarthur moved to London to take up the position of secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League. Established by Emma Paterson (1848-86) in 1874, the league initially aimed to protect wages and conditions of workers, provide benefits for sick and unemployed workers and help settle disputes between workers and employers. When Macarthur became secretary, the league’s new aims included improving the rights of female workers and persuading all-male trade unions to admit women. Whilst the Women’s Trade Union League united women from different trades, their affiliations with activists with different aims hindered their goals.

The badge of the NFWW.

Some activists focused on particular classes rather than women as a whole. Macarthur worried the upper classes would receive preferential treatment, causing the working classes to suffer. In 1906, Macarthur established the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) as a trade union for all women. Whereas the Women’s Trade Union League campaigned to allow women into mixed-gender trade unions, the NFWW was a women-only trade union. By the end of the year, 2,000 women signed up to the NFWW across seventeen branches.

As the founder of the NFWW and as a suffragette, Macarthur helped oversee the founding of the National Anti-Sweating League. This league, run by British politician George Shann (1876-1919), aimed to end the suffering workers faced in “sweatshops” and demanded a minimum wage.

An issue of The Women Worker from 1907

In 1907, fuelled by her passion for writing, Macarthur founded The Woman Worker, a monthly newspaper for the NFWW. In the first issue, Macarthur stated the paper’s aim “To teach the need for unity, to help improve working conditions, to present a monthly picture of the many activities of women Trade Unionists, to discuss all questions affecting the interests and welfare of women. Such, in brief, is our aim and purpose.” Due to popular demand, The Woman Worker developed into a weekly paper for over 20,000 readers.

Although The Woman Worker primarily focused on women’s needs, Macarthur also tackled much broader topics, including the conditions of sweatshops, which affected both men and women. As a journalist, Macarthur visited the poverty-stricken areas of London, speaking to the people who worked for long hours in inadequate settings for minimal money. In 1908, Macarthur presented her findings to the House of Commons. 

Macarthur’s findings alone were insufficient in her strive to end the harsh working conditions but combined with other people’s research, the reports began to make a difference. Encouraged by the National Anti-Sweating League, sweatshop workers went on strike, demanding fairer pay. A photograph taken in 1908 shows Macarthur addressing a crowd of striking men and women in Trafalgar Square. Forty-four women from Corruganza Box Making Works initiated the strike in protest of unfair pay-cuts. Many of the male workers joined their cause, and others donated money to the company to pay their employees an appropriate salary.

In 1909, the British government passed the Trade Boards Act, which allowed boards to establish a minimum wage for particular trades, most notably chain-making, ready-made tailoring, paper-box making, and the machine-made lace trade. Unfortunately, not all companies willingly agreed to the new wages, for instance, a chain-making enterprise in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.

Macarthur addressing the crowds during the chain-makers’ strike, Cradley Heath 1910

With the help of the NFWW, 800 female chain-makers organised a ten-week strike in retaliation to their employer’s refusal to increase their wages. The Trade Boards Act stipulated the women should receive a minimum of 11s (55p) per week, but they continued to receive far less. From mid-August until 22nd October 1910, the strikers protested on the streets where they gained many supporters. In cinemas across the country, people watched newsreels about the progress of the strike, and the NFWW collected £4,000 (approximately £450,000 today) in donations from several local communities. Eventually, their employer agreed to increase their wages, and the donations collected during the strike helped to fund the Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute.

With two successful strikes under her belt, Macarthur’s fame spread across the country. When troubles occurred in food and drink factories in Bermondsey, Macarthur received a request for assistance. The summer of August 1911 was one of the hottest summers on record, which made working long hours in poor conditions almost impossible. Whilst the Trade Boards Act improved wages for some women, this did not include women in food factories who continued to receive as little as 3 shillings a week. A total of 14,000 women went on strike from 22 factories and marched on London in protest. Macarthur addressed the crowds in Southwark Park, supported by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) amongst others. After weeks of determination, the factory women received a significant pay rise.

During 1911, Macarthur married British socialist politician William Anderson (1877-1919), with whom she later had a daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Nancy”. During the First World War, Anderson sat as the chairman of the executive committee of the Labour party. He fully supported his wife’s determination to improve working conditions for women. When war broke out in 1914, many men left their day jobs to enlist as soldiers. The government encouraged women to fill the men’s positions or work in munitions factories. Over a million women enrolled in these positions, but many found the working conditions inadequate, the hours long and the pay unsatisfactory.

Once again, the NFWW campaigned to improve the working conditions for women. One of the first establishments they targeted was the Ainsworth Mill in Cleator Moor, Cumbria where women produced khaki thread for soldier’s uniforms. For 60 hours of work, the women received a pitiable seven to nine shillings. Supported by the NFWW, 250 women organised a strike, and Macarthur’s husband implored the House of Commons to investigate the low payment rates. After six weeks of campaigning, the women received a 10% War Bonus.

When investigating the munitions factories, the NFWW found men received seven pence an hour, whereas women only earned three and a half. The organisation successfully campaigned for an end to the unequal payment, but one Newcastle factory refused to comply. During 1916, the NFWW encouraged the underpaid women to stage a sit-in, where they knitted socks for the soldiers rather than operating the machinery in the factory. This action angered parliament, and Macarthur received a phone call directly from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) asking her to explain her actions. Twenty-four hours later, the women returned to work and received a back payment of their missing wages. 

As the war continued, many more women went on strike across the country, demanding equal pay or improved working conditions. Each time, they received the support of the NFWW and became a talking point in parliament. With recent Suffragette militancy fresh in their minds, politicians discussed the rights of women in general, which likely contributed towards the decision to grant women over 30 the right to vote in 1918.

After the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, women were allowed to stand for parliament. Macarthur decided to stand as the Labour Party candidate for the Stourbridge constituency in Worcestershire. She worked closely with John Davison (1870-1927), the Labour candidate in Smethwick, who defeated his only opponent, Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958). Unfortunately, Macarthur did not win due to her opposition to the war. Her husband, who held similar sentiments, also lost his seat.

1st International Congress of Working Women

In 1919, Macarthur’s husband passed away after suffering a short bout of influenza. Despite this sad loss, Macarthur represented the NFWW at The International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) later that year. Women from Great Britain, the USA, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland attended the international women’s congress to discuss working conditions for women. Topics included an 8-hour day, equal pay and maternity leave. By the end of the conference, they had established the Maternity Protection Convention, which adopted proposals concerning “women’s employment, before and after childbirth, including the question of maternity benefit”.

After many successful years of representing women, the NFWW merged with the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) in 1920 to form a union for both male and female workers. Under the motto “You Cannot Afford To Stand Alone”, the NUGW continued to support workers in low paid jobs and ensured they received pay increases to match the rate of inflation. In 1924, the NUGW merged with the National Amalgamated Union of Labour and the Municipal Employees Association to form the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, now known as GMB.

Statue of Mary Macarthur, Mary Macarthur Gardens, Cradley Heath

Macarthur continued to support women through the NUGW, making significant changes in many places of employment. She worked right up until her death from cancer on 1st January 1921, age 40. Although many people in the 21st century are unfamiliar with her name and work, the areas where she made the most impact continue to remember Mary Macarthur. In Cradley Heath, for instance, a statue of Macarthur stands in the Mary Macarthur Gardens, and a nearby road is named Mary Macarthur Drive in her honour.

In memory of her work, the Mary Macarthur Scholarship Fund (1922-2011) and Mary Macarthur Educational Trust (1968-2011) aimed “to advance the educational opportunities of working women”. In Cardiff, the Mary Macarthur Holiday Trust continues to provide “help for women who need a break”. The trust assists women who due to age, poverty, infirmity, disablement or social or economic circumstances require a break from everyday life. There are also three blocks of social houses/flats named after Mary Macarthur in London at Hammersmith, Bethnal Green and Dagenham.

In 2017, English Heritage unveiled a blue plaque at 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green, where Macarthur once lived and died. Since 2018, Mary Macarthur’s name and portrait have, along with 54 other women and four men, decorated the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.

Lack of general knowledge about Mary Macarthur highlights how little the country knows about the women that made a difference in society. Without pioneering women such as Macarthur, life would be very different today. Thanks to Macarthur, women receive (almost) equal treatment to men at work and have the right to be represented by trade unions. If Macarthur could witness the life of a British woman today, almost a century after her death, she would no doubt be proud of her achievements.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven

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Unfinished Business: The Edinburgh Seven

At the British Library‘s exhibition Unfinished Business, the Edinburgh Seven featured as examples of women campaigning for the right to higher education. Whilst girls were welcome in schools during the 19th-century, universities did not permit women to enrol. The seven women, known as the Edinburgh Seven, began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 against the ruling of the Court of Session, but they were not allowed to graduate. 

Taking their name from the Greek mythological story the Seven Against Thebes, the Edinburgh Seven or Septem contra Edinam involved many women over their four-year campaign. The seven leaders were: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell. Jex-Blake instigated the campaign after applying to study medicine in March 1869. Whilst the Medical Faculty was in favour of welcoming Jex-Blake, the University Court rejected the application stating they could not change the rules “in the interest of one lady”. 

Jex-Blake’s application for matriculation

Determined to study at the university, Jex-Blake published letters in national newspapers asking women to join her. Two women, Thorne and Pechey, quickly joined her cause and by the summer, the number of women totalled five. Jex-Blake resubmitted her application along with the other women in the hopes that this time the university would grant her entry. While waiting for a response, two more women joined the cause, taking the total to seven. The University Court accepted the application so long as the women could pass the matriculation exam.

The matriculation exam involved English, Latin, mathematics and two subjects of the candidate’s choice: Greek, French, German, higher mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy. On 19th October 1869, 152 students took the exam, Jex-Blake and her friends being the only women. All of them passed with four women earning a place in the top seven. On 2nd November 1869, the University of Edinburgh opened its doors to women for the first time.

“It is a grand thing to enter the very first British University ever opened to women, isn’t it?”

Sophia Jex-Blake

Who were the Edinburgh Seven?

Sophia Jex-Blake by Samuel Laurence, 1865

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912), the leader of the Edinburgh Seven grew up in Hastings where she received an education at home until the age of eight. After this, she attended many private schools including Queen’s College, London, which she started attending in 1858 without her parents’ permission. The following year, the college offered Jex-Blake a post as a mathematics tutor, which she accepted although did without pay.

In 1861, Jex-Blake travelled to the United States, where she met Dr Lucy Ellen Sewall, an American physician who inspired Jex-Blake to think about becoming a doctor. After working for some time as Sewall’s assistant, Jex-Blake wrote to the President and Fellows of Harvard University asking to attend the University’s Medical School. After waiting a month, she received a reply saying, “There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university”.

Jex-Blake’s father passed away shortly after this rejection, so she returned to England to support her mother. Yet, she still aspired to attend university and set her sights on Scotland, a country that already had shifting attitudes towards education.

Isabel Jane Thorne (Mrs Thorne)

Isabel Jane Thorne (1834-1910), nee Pryer, also attended Queen’s College, London. In 1856, Isabel married Joseph Thorne (1823-85), a tea merchant in China, and they spent the first years of their married life in Shanghai. The couple had five children, one of whom died in infancy, which inspired Thorne to help other women and children in China. Thorn believed women needed female doctors, so when she returned to England in 1868, she enrolled on a midwifery course at the Ladies’ Medical College in Fitzroy Square, London.

Disappointed with the inadequate teaching at the Ladies’ Medical College, Thorne eagerly responded to Jex-Blake’s letter. She won first prize in an anatomy examination but gave up her ambition to become a doctor to help other women access medical education. Her daughter May, who supported her mother’s dreams, later became a surgeon.

Edith Pechey

(Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) from Essex already had connections with the University of Edinburgh through her father William, a Baptist minister who earned his MA in theology in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, Pechey could not use this to her advantage because she was a woman. Pechey worked as a governess until she saw and responded to Jex-Blake’s advertisement. Although concerned she did not have enough knowledge of the subjects needed to pass the matriculation exam, Pechey achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam after only one year of study.

Matilda Chaplin (1846-83) moved to Kensington from France shortly after her birth. Her early education focused on art, but in 1867 she decided to study medicine instead. Two years at the Ladies’ Medical College only got her so far, until her gender blocked her ambitions to become a doctor. Chaplin jumped at the chance to join Jex-Blake’s campaign to study at the University of Edinburgh.

Matriculation Record

Helen de Lacey Evans (1833-1903), born Helen Carter, was an Irish woman who spent some time in India where she married cavalry officer Henry John Delacy Evans of the Bengal Horse Artillery Regiment in 1845. Their marriage was short and bittersweet, resulting in the death of their infant daughter Helen shortly followed by Henry’s death. After returning to Britain, Evans responded to Jex-Blake and joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Mary Adamson Anderson (1837-1910) from Boyndie, Scotland was the daughter of Reverend Alexander Govie Anderson and sister-in-law of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). Little information exists about Anderson until she joined the Edinburgh Seven.

Signature of Emily Bovell

Emily Bovell (1841-85), like Jex-Blake, attended Queen’s College, London and stayed on to teach Mathematics. She too responded to Jex-Blake’s letter, eager to continue her education.

Enrolling at the University of Edinburgh was only the first hurdle. In hindsight, it was relatively easy in comparison to what they later faced. The Edinburgh University Calendar for 1870 introduced a new section called the Regulations for the Education of Women in Medicine in the University. This stated men and women were to receive equal tuition and examinations. Despite this, women received their lessons separately from men and had to pay higher fees.

Thomas Charles Hope

In March 1870, all seven women passed their first exams in physiology and chemistry, four of whom received honours in both subjects. Edith Pechey won first place amongst all the candidates, which entitled her to the Hope Scholarship. This award, initiated by Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) chemistry professor Thomas Charles Hope (1766-1844) forty years previously, was usually given to the top four students. The present Professor of Chemistry, Dr Crum-Brown, on the other hand, thought giving the scholarship to women would undermine the male students.

Denying women the Hope Scholarship sparked further hostilities in the university. Many professors continued to argue that women should not be allowed to study with the men and expressed concerns that they may have ulterior motives for seeking medical careers. Pechey wrote to the papers to express her anger at being called “the foulest epithets”, most notably “whore”. Newspapers sympathetic to the women questioned why the professors did not have the same concerns about their male students, yet the professors maintained the women should “Become Midwives, not doctors!”

The male students, perhaps encouraged by their professors’ views, went out of their way to make the women’s lives difficult. As well as name-calling, the women received threatening letters and faced attacks in the streets. Vandals damaged their property and, on one occasion, Jex-Blake had a lit Catherine Wheel attached to her door.

Surgeons’ Hall

Despite the ongoing antagonism, the women persevered with their education. On 18th November 1870, their anatomy exam was due to take place at Surgeons’ Hall, but on their arrival, they faced a hostile crowd. After fighting their way through the masses while being pelted with mud and rubbish, they found the entrance to the hall locked. After enduring the hostilities, now known as the Surgeons’ Hall Riots, for several minutes, a sympathetic male student unlocked the doors.

After the riots, many of the male students changed their attitudes towards the women. Shocked by the abuse they witnessed, some of the men volunteered to act as bodyguards. They walked the women to and from their exams and their classes. The police fined three of the riot instigators £1 for “breach of the peace”, but Jex-Blake believed it was a member of staff who encouraged their behaviour.

Inspired by the Edinburgh Seven, other women joined the university and others established a General Committee for Securing a Complete Medical Education for Women. Over 300 people joined the committee, both women and men, including the well-known naturalist Charles Darwin. Despite this support and the excellent exam results the women received, the university refused to let them graduate. Not only did the university deny the women degrees, but they also ruled that women should no longer be allowed to attend.

School of Medicine for Women

Despite complaints, the university refused to back down, yet the Edinburgh Seven were not ready to give up on their dreams. In 1874, Sophia Jex-Blake helped to establish the London School of Medicine for Women with two other pioneering women: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Bristol-born Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child and experienced similar issues as the Edinburgh Seven when applying to American universities. She eventually found a place at Geneva Medical College in New York where, despite harsh treatment, she received a degree in 1849, the first American woman to do so.

Garrett Anderson, inspired by Blackwell, sought a medical education in Britain but received rejections from every establishment. After working for some time as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital, she travelled to France, where she successfully earned a medical degree. Returning to England, Garrett Anderson eagerly agreed to help Jex-Blake establish the School of Medicine for Women and served as Dean from 1883 until 1903.

Shortly after the establishment of the school, Conservative MP Robert Gurney (1804-78) proposed changes to the Medical Act, which would allow both genders to attend and graduate from medical schools. Despite Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) objections to women working, she passed the new Medical Act in 1876. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was the first establishment to implement these changes, but this was too late for Jex-Blake who by then was a student at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She successfully graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1877.

On returning to Scotland, Jex-Blake set up a clinic where she practised as Edinburgh’s first female doctor. In 1878, Jex-Blake established an outpatient clinic for poor women who could not afford the prices of most doctors. By 1885, it had expanded to include a small ward under the name the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women, Scotland’s first hospital for women staffed by women.

In 1886, Jex-Blake set up the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, but it did not prove as successful as the London school. Despite having the support of a handful of physicians, the school struggled to find funding. Unlike the London school, which had several teachers, Jex-Blake attempted to teach her students alone. Evidence suggests she was not as good at teaching as she was at being a doctor and the school closed in 1892. By this time, the University of Edinburgh allowed female applicants and Jex-Blake’s students continued their education at the university.

Jex-Blake continued to work as a doctor until 1899, when she retired to Windydene in Mark Cross, Rotherfield. Here she resided with Dr Margaret Todd (1859-1918), a doctor who coined the word “isotope” in 1913. Many assume Jex-Blake and Todd had a romantic relationship and, after Jex-Blake’s death in 1912 Todd wrote The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake

What happened to the other six women?

When the University of Edinburgh denied the women their degrees, Isabel Thorne gave up her ambition to become a doctor. Instead, she joined the London School of Medicine for Women as a teacher. When Jex-Blake travelled to Berne to pursue her medical education, Thorne took over as Honorary Secretary, which she held until 1908. Thorne committed herself to teaching and helping the school run smoothly, without which it would have floundered.

Thorne kept an account of her years at the school, which she published as Sketch of the Foundation and Development of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1905. Her daughter May followed in her footsteps, graduating from the school in 1895 and taking over as Honorary Secretary in 1908. Thorne passed away at home in October 1910, age 76.

Edith Pechey refused to give up on her ambition to become a doctor. After leaving Edinburgh, Pechey contacted the College of Physicians in Ireland who allowed her to take exams to earn a midwifery license. This led to a job at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women, where she worked until 1877 when she, like Jex-Blake, travelled to Berne to earn her degree. In May 1877, Pechey became a fully licensed doctor.

For six years, Pechey worked as a doctor in Leeds, where she also advocated for women’s health education. When the London School of Medicine for Women opened, Jex-Blake invited Pechey to give the inaugural address. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson suggested Pechey may be interested in a new “medical women for India” fund and, in 1883, Pechey arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) to work at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children as Senior Medical Officer (SMO).

While in India, Pechey encouraged women to train as nurses and demanded they received equal pay. She gave lectures to student nurses and campaigned for social reform so that women could enter other male-oriented fields. Her reputation grew, and she received invites from several societies asking her to be their first female member. By 1888, she was on the Bombay Natural History Society committee.

H. M. Phipson

Pechey met the founding secretary of the society, Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1850-1936) and learnt he also had a hand in developing the “medical women for India” fund. With Phipson, who she married in March 1889, Pechey established the Pechey Phipson Sanitarium for Women and Children in Nasik, India. Unfortunately, five years later Pechey-Phipson suffered ill health, including diabetes, and resigned from hospital work. She continued to practice privately and proved invaluable during the bubonic plague and cholera outbreak.

Pechey-Phipson and her husband returned to England in 1905 and she quickly involved herself with the suffrage movement. She took part in the famous Mud March but soon after became critically ill. Diagnosed with breast cancer, Pechey-Phipson sought treatment. She underwent an operation led by the surgeon May Thorne, the daughter of Isabel Thorne, but passed away while in a diabetic coma on 14th April 1908. Her husband set up a scholarship at the London School of Medicine for Women in her memory.

William Edward Ayrton

When the University of Edinburgh closed to women, Matilda Chaplin travelled to France to complete her education at the University of Paris. After gaining a Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres, Chaplin married her cousin William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), a physicist and electrical engineer who studied under Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Back in the United Kingdom, Mrs Ayrton qualified as a midwife then moved to Japan with her husband.

While her husband taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo, Ayrton established a school for Japanese midwives. In 1875, she gave birth to her daughter Edith (1875-1945) who would go on to play a role in the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Unfortunately, Ayrton developed tuberculosis, which prompted her return to Europe in 1877. After recovering, she moved to Paris to take the Doctor of Medicine exams, which she passed in 1879.

Child Life in Japan

Ayrton continued to study, taking exams at the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, after which she moved to London to study diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. A recurrence of tuberculosis prompted her to seek warmer climates during the winter months. When not working in hospitals, Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman newspaper and wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan, which she illustrated. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton passed away in London on 19th July 1883, age 37.

Helen de Lacey Evans decided not to pursue her medical career after leaving the University of Edinburgh, but she did remain in touch with Sophia Jex-Blake. In 1871, Evans remarried to Alexander Russel (1814-76), the editor of The Scotsman. Evans and Russel had three children, including Helen Archdale (1876-1949) who, inspired by her mother, went on to organise the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Although she did not become a doctor, Evans advocated female doctors and emphasised the importance of education for girls. Sadly, her husband died suddenly of angina pectoris in 1876, making her a widow for the second time. With three young children to bring up, Evans had limited time to spend on promoting women’s health education, yet she remained passionate for the cause. Later, in 1900, Evans became the vice-president of the committee of the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children. Unfortunately, she did not hold this position for long, passing away on 4th October 1903 after a surgical procedure.

Little is known about Mary Anderson‘s life after she left the University of Edinburgh. Records show she earned a medical doctorate from the Faculté de médecine de Paris in 1879. She married a man named Claud Marshall and worked as a senior physician at the New Hospital for Women in Marylebone, London. She died in 1910.

Emily Bovell also moved to Paris to continue her education, qualifying as a doctor in 1877. That year, she met the future personal physician for Queen Victoria, William Allen Sturge (1850-1919), who she married later that year in London. Together, they set up a practice in Wimpole Street, and Bovell returned to Queen’s College to lecture on physiology and hygiene. She also ran classes for female paramedics.

Her husband supported Bovell’s work and also campaigned for women’s medical education. Unfortunately, in 1881, Bovell began complaining of breathing problems, which made it difficult to focus on her medical career. The couple moved to Nice in the hopes the climate would help Bovell’s condition. Rallying a little, Bovell set up a practice in Nice as their first female doctor. Sadly, her lung problems worsened in 1884, and she passed away the following April. In her honour, her husband established the Bovell-Sturge laboratory at Queen’s College.

Edinburgh Seven Plaque

Despite the University of Edinburgh refusing to allow the women to graduate, each member of the Edinburgh Seven went on to achieve things despite their gender. Due to their determination, universities opened up for women, and today it is as common to see a female doctor as it is a male. Sadly, no one apologised to the women for the treatment they received during their education but, in 2015, Edinburgh University unveiled a plaque in their honour as part of the Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaques Scheme. In 2019, Edinburgh Medical School went one step further, posthumously awarding the Edinburgh Seven with an honorary Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).

Usually, the Suffragists and Suffragettes receive the credit for changing lives for women, but this is not entirely true. The Edinburgh Seven were instrumental in changing the medical world for women and should be recognised accordingly. The Unfinished Business exhibition at the British Library only named Sophia Jex-Blake in a brief paragraph, but all seven women deserve far more attention. 

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau

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Unfinished Business – Harriet Martineau

“The progression or emancipation of any class … takes place through the efforts of individuals of that class. All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position.”

Harriet Martineau

The British Library displays a banner of Harriet Martineau’s portrait and a brief description as part of their Unfinished Business exhibition. Focusing on women’s rights, the library reveals Martineau, a British author, was the fore-mother of sociology. Her works were widely read in her day but have since fallen off the radar. Martineau wrote from a feminine perspective at a time when it was rare for a woman to express her opinion so publicly. Not only that, she earned enough money from her works to support herself entirely, a rare feat for a Victorian woman.

Born on 12th June 1802 in Norwich, Harriet Martineau, the sixth of eight children, grew up in the vicinity of Octagon Chapel where her father, Thomas (1764-1826), was deacon. The Martineau family was of French Huguenot descent and were prominent Unitarians. Harriet’s grandfather, David Martineau II (1726-68), purchased the Bracondale Woods near Norwich in 1793 where he built a “handsome mansion with pleasure grounds delightfully laid out”. His fifth son, Thomas, was Harriet’s father.

Thomas Martineau married Elizabeth Rankin (1772-1848), the daughter of a grocer, and had their first daughter in 1794. Named after her mother, Elizabeth (1794-1850) married Dr Thomas Greenhow (1792-1881). The Daily Telegraph recently reported that if Greenhow were alive today, he would have “led the fight against Covid 19”. Through the marriage of their daughter Frances (1820-92) to Francis Lupton (1813-84), they are related to the present Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Harriet’s eldest brother Thomas (1795-1824) became a surgeon, founding an eye infirmary, which is now part of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Another brother, Robert (1798-1870), became the Mayor of Birmingham in 1846, but it was with her younger brother James (1805-1900) that Harriet felt closest. James was a religious philosopher who Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) regarded as “the mastermind of all the remarkable company with whom he engaged.” Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) maintained James was “beyond question the greatest of living thinkers”.

Few records about Harriet’s childhood survive other than what she mentioned in her later writings. Her mother supposedly lacked affection for her children and abandoned them to wet nurses. Harriet expressed this lack of nurture in her book Household Education (1848), although their relationship improved later in life. Elizabeth wished her daughters to have a conservative education. Whilst she desired them to read well, anything unfeminine, including writing, was strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, her daughters flourished academically and Harriet’s sister Rachel opened a Unitarian Academy, attended by ancestors of Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter (b.1966). 

At a young age, Martineau started to lose some of her senses, beginning with taste and smell, then hearing. By adulthood, she was profoundly deaf and required an ear trumpet, an old form of hearing aid. Determined not to let her disabilities get the better of her, Martineau went against her mother’s wishes and started to write anonymously for the Monthly Repository, a Unitarian periodical concerned with the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the reform of the Church of England. These articles led to the publication of Martineau’s first book in 1823, Devotional Exercises and Addresses, Prayers and Hymns.

In 1826, Martineau’s father passed away. His grave rests in Rosary Cemetery, the first non-denominational burial ground in the United Kingdom. His textile business, which none of his children seemed particularly keen to run, began to suffer, eventually closing in 1829. Martineau, then 27 years old, went against traditional gender roles to make a living for her family. She began to publish articles in the Monthly Repository under her real name, earning her a salary and three prizes from the Unitarian Association. These accolades helped to establish her as a freelance writer. 

Although she never wished death upon either of her parents, Martineau admitted the resulting failure of her father’s business was “one of the best things that ever happened to us”. Until then, Martineau going to work was not an option, and she felt she was vegetating at home rather than living. Whilst her brothers were earning, they had families of their own and could not afford to provide for their mothers and sisters as well. Financial responsibility fell to Martineau, which, ironically, gave Martineau her long-desired freedom.

At the beginning of the 1830s, Martineau received her first book commission. Martineau wrote Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, as a work of fiction intended to help readers understand the capitalist ideas of ”The Father of Economics” Adam Smith (1723-90). The publisher, assuming it would not sell well on account of her gender, only printed 1500 copies. Very soon, the public demanded more copies and the book eventually surpassed the sales of works by Charles Dickens (1812-70).

Illustrations of Political Economy was an international success, spreading Smith’s visions of a free-market throughout the British Empire. At the publisher’s request, Martineau wrote a series of fictional tutorials about other political economists, including James Mill (1773-1836), the father of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73); Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832); and David Ricardo (1772-1823). Martineau also wrote about her thoughts on population control, inspired by the economist of demography Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

As well as writing these Illustrations, Martineau continued producing articles for the Monthly Repository, where her work caught the eye of the editor Reverend William Fox (1786-1864). The Unitarian minister of South Place Chapel, in Finsbury, London, invited Martineau to London to join his circle of progressive thinkers. On her first visit, Fox introduced her to Erasmus Alvey Darwin (1804-81), the brother of Charles Darwin (1809-82), who proved to be a vital connection.

Around 1832, Martineau moved to London and became a regular attendee of meetings held by Fox. Her social circle instantly grew to include well-known writers and thinkers, such as Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Later, she made the acquaintance of Dickens, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) and George Eliot (1819-80). Yet, Martineau kept in close contact with her younger brother James, who assisted her with the Illustrations series. She also penned four stories expressing her support for the Whig Poor Law reforms.

Charles Darwin, while exploring the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, received a copy of Martineau’s Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation from his sisters. They described Martineau as a “great Lion” and encouraged Darwin to read her books in his spare time. By this time, Martineau’s popularity had spread to the United States, which spurred her trip to the country in 1834 where she met with former President James Madison (1751-1836).

Martineau received a mixed reception in the US. As a strong supporter of abolitionism, she angered many Americans who remained against the movement. Martineau likewise supported women’s rights, which also caused controversy. On visiting some of the very few girls’ schools in the country, she expressed her anger at the “unjustifiable restriction of education.” In comparison to the educational opportunities for boys, girls had limited choices. On her return to England, Martineau wrote, “The choice is to either be ill-educated, passive, and subservient, or well-educated, vigorous, and free only upon sufferance.”

Martineau’s return to London coincided with the completion of Charles Darwin’s expedition. In 1836, Darwin went to stay with his brother Erasmus who spent much of his time “driving out Miss Martineau”. Rumours that Erasmus and Martineau were an item unsettled Darwin who believed his brother would not survive a marriage to “so philosophical & energetic a lady”. Their father Robert (1766-1848) also had concerns that Martineau was too politically minded, despite sharing her Unitarian and Whig views.

On the other hand, Charles Darwin enjoyed discussing ideas with Martineau, commenting that “She is a wonderful woman”. While writing her book Society in America, Martineau discussed both the social and natural aspects of the country with Darwin. In a letter to his sisters, Darwin remarked: “She was very agreeable and managed to talk on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Princess Victoria (1819-1901) was also a fan of Martineau’s work and invited Martineau to her coronation in 1838.

Deerbrock

Fears of a marriage between Martineau and Erasmus came to nought after Martineau fell ill during a tour of Europe. Rather than return to London, she moved to Tynemouth near Newcastle to be near her brother. Martineau explored the fateful romance in her novel Deerbrook (1838), which features a failed love affair between a physician and his sister-in-law. Fortunately, Martineau and Erasmus remained on good terms, writing to each other frequently.

Doctors diagnosed Martineau with a uterine tumour, which confined her mostly to her home. She received frequent visits from her brother-in-law Dr Greenhow, who helped to relieve some of her symptoms. Unable to walk or stand well, Martineau’s mother cared for her until they found a suitable nurse. Not only did Martineau suffer physically, both from the tumour and deafness, she found herself in the position she had campaigned against, enacting the social constraints of women.

To assert her independence, albeit, with the help of a nurse, Martineau moved to Mrs Halliday’s boarding-house on 16th March 1840, where she resided for five years. The building later became a guest house, renamed “Martineau Guest House” in her honour. Whilst living there, Martineau continued to write, particularly about her illness. Life in the Sickroom: Essays by an Invalid, published in 1844, is an autobiographical work that explores Martineau’s thoughts during her confinement. She dedicated the book to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, declaring it was “an outpouring of feeling to an idealised female alter ego, both professional writer and professional invalid- and utterly unlike the women in her own family”.

Despite her weakened state, Martineau took control of her situation. She often disagreed with doctors and told them what to do, rather than the other way around. Many readers of Life in the Sickroom declared Martineau mentally unwell, presuming her sickness had addled her mind. They were also concerned about the unfeminine hobbies Martineau took up, for instance, astronomy, although it was not only the stars she looked at through her telescope.

“When I look forth in the morning, the whole land may be sheeted with glittering snow, while the myrtle-green sea swells and tumbles… there is none of the deadness of winter in the landscape; no leafless trees, no locking up with ice; and the air comes in through my open upper sash brisk, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… And at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver!”

Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sickroom, 1844

In 1844, Martineau’s health improved with the help of a new form of alternative medicine called mesmerism, named after the German doctor Franz Mesmer (1743-1815). Also known as animal magnetism, the treatment is a “loosely grouped set of practices in which one person influenced another through a variety of personal actions, or through the direct influence of one mind on another mind. Mesmerism was designed to make invisible forces augment the mental powers of the mesmeric object.” (Alison Winter, 1995) Martineau recorded her progress in a series of sixteen letters, which she eventually published under the title Letters on Mesmerism

In her new-found health, Martineau designed a house called The Knoll, which she oversaw the construction of in Ambleside, Lake District. Although she spent most of her later life in this house, she lived with her elderly mother in Birmingham during 1846. After this, Martineau set off on a tour of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, which inspired her book Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). In her writing, Martineau established a connection between the ancient beliefs of the Egyptians with 19th-century Christian beliefs. Once again, she caused controversy with many readers branding her an infidel.

As well as her book about the Eastern world, Martineau published Household Education in 1848, expressing her disdain for the lack of female academia. Although she agreed that motherhood and domesticity were worthy virtues, they did not prevent a woman from receiving a well-rounded education. Martineau proposed that young girls should receive the same schooling as boys, but if they chose to become a housewife, that was their decision rather than command and obedience. 

Eager to change the ways schools taught, Martineau conducted lectures at local schools for both children and their parents. She told them of her trip to America and the Middle East, as well as focusing on British history. The publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873) encouraged Martineau to convert her lectures into books, resulting in The History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1816–1846.

Martineau’s lectures and books spread to other topics, earning her the reputation of a “progressive” woman. Most of the subjects she tackled were not expected of a woman, making her appear to have a masculine nature. One of her books, A Complete Guide to the English Lakes, replaced William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) guide of the Lake District and remained popular for over 25 years. She also become a regular contributor for the Daily News and the Westminster Review.

Despite coming from a strict religious family, Martineau’s ideas bordered on atheism, causing irreparable rifts between her family and some friends. This was principally a result of the spiritual practice of mesmerism, which she credited for her “cure”, although medical doctors had different theories. Not only did her uterine tumour no longer cause her any problems, but Martineau also found it easier to cope with her deafness and lack of taste and smell. Unfortunately, her good health did not last for long; she received a heart disease diagnosis in 1855.

Concerned that she would not live long, Martineau hastily wrote her final autobiography, instructing her publisher to print it after her death. As it turned out, she need not have rushed. Meanwhile, she involved herself with political activism, particularly the Married Women’s Property Bill and women’s suffrage.

In 1859, Erasmus Darwin sent Martineau a copy of his brother’s book On the Origin of Species, which she thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the first books about the world that did not have a theological premise. Having gushed about what a great book it was, Martineau wrote, “In the present state of the religious world, Secularism ought to flourish. What an amount of sin and woe might and would then be extinguished.” Unfortunately, this opinion pushed her even further away from her profoundly religious brother James. 

Throughout the 1860s, Martineau signed petitions for women’s suffrage and continued to write her controversial books. Despite her poor health, she lived to the age of 74, passing away on 27th June 1876 after a bout of bronchitis. Although she lived in Ambleside, her burial took place in Birmingham alongside her mother in Key Hill Cemetery. The publication of her autobiography went ahead the following year.

Over time, Martineau’s books fell out of favour as the increasing number of women fighting for equal rights overshadowed them. Only recently has her work resurfaced in debates about the founder of sociology. Some praise Martineau for being the first sociologist to study issues related to women, such as marriage and children. She also taught that society must include all religions, races, cultures and politics.

Naturally, sociology has developed considerably since Harriet Martineau’s time, but there is clear evidence she pointed sociologists in the right direction. It is thanks to radical women like Martineau that Britain has seen so many changes concerning gender equality. Harriet Martineau features on the Reformers memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery amongst the likes of William Morris (1834-96), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and other radical thinkers.


Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley

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Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley

Shortly before Lockdown 2.0, the British Library opened an exhibition about the fight for women’s rights. Displays about the Women’s Suffrage Movement were popular in 2018, celebrating the centenary of women voting for the first time. Unfinished Business explores other areas of life where women have been given or continue to receive unfair treatment. 

The exhibition explores three areas: body, mind and voice. For years, media has dictated how women should look, what they should wear and how they should appear in public. Magazines are full of airbrushed photographs, showing the (usually male) ideal of the female body. Models appear thinner on paper than in real life and their complexion perfect; the only time a woman appears fat or ugly is in gossip magazines where articles express horror at how she “has let herself go”.

Menstruation continues to be a taboo subject. Not only do men not wish to hear about periods, but they have led women to believe they are disgusting and unnatural when the complete opposite is true. After 48 years of campaigning, sanitary products will be tax-free from 1st January in the United Kingdom, although the Welsh government were recently in trouble when they deemed tampons as non-essential items. 

For hundreds of years, men considered the female mind to be inferior, resulting in limited education and career opportunities. Women were not allowed to attend university until 1868, yet their choices were limited and degrees unattainable. The first woman to receive a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) in 1948. Even then, it was only an honorary degree.

Until the 20th century, politics was a man’s world. Today, just over 23% of people in national governments are women, and the United Kingdom only has a proportion of 33.8% of women in management roles. Women broke parliamentary barriers in 1924 when Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953) became the first woman to be appointed as a minister. Barriers were broken again in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) became Prime Minister, and in 1987, Diane Abbott (b.1953) became the first black woman to serve as an MP.

The final section of the exhibition explores women’s voices and their determination to be treated equally. One of the most notable campaigners for women’s rights is Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue now stands in Parliament Square in 2018. The British suffragist leader played a vital role in winning women the right to vote.

A century before, novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) pushed gender boundaries by publishing her books under the name “A Lady” rather than taking a male pseudonym. Most publishers rejected novels written by women, so to advertise her gender, if not her name, was radical for the era.

Women continue to speak up about their unfair treatment, making use of the media, music and protests. In 2018, British activist Stella Dadzie (b.1952), a founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, designed a board game called “Womanopoly”. Loosely based on the familiar Monopoly, the game exposes the gender stereotypes that continue to plague modern society. Each square has an instruction for male and female players, for example, “Man – you are very aggressive and competitive – seize an extra turn. Woman – so are you. Take a sedative and stop being unfeminine. Lose a turn.” Yet, Dadzie does not only focus on women’s struggles: “Woman – your husband agrees to share all the housework … Take an extra turn. Man – you are ridiculed by your men friends. Back 2.”

The Unfinished Business exhibition acknowledges many women’s voices. As well as notable names, quite a few remain unknown. Going around the displays, visitors discover women who need their stories told. Having noted a few of these names, I plan to dedicate a blog to each individual. 

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952)

Vesta Tilley featured in the exhibition for being one of the most famous male impersonators of her era. Typically playing fops, dandies or principal boys, Tilley became England’s highest-paid woman of the 1890s, yet continued to scandalise people by wearing trousers.

Born Matilda Alice Powles on 13th May 1864 in Worcester, Tilley was the second of thirteen children of Henry and Matilda Powles. Her father, known as Harry Ball, was a musician and the master of ceremonies at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester. With his encouragement, Tilley first experienced life on stage at the age of three and, by six, was singing songs while dressed as a man.

From 1869 onwards, Tilley worked as a professional stage performer. Her first named role was Pocket Sims Reeves, a spoof of the opera singer John Sim Reeves (1821-1900). Tilley performed many of Reeve’s songs, including the traditional piece, The Anchor’s Weighed. Audiences found the young Tilley’s performances sweet and amusing, but Tilley continued to impersonate men throughout her teens and adulthood, including the role of Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13.

“I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.”

Vesta Tilley

Between 1815 and 1918, British Music Hall entertainment flourished, providing audiences with a variety of acts, often on the bold and scandalous side. Vesta Tilley fit the bill perfectly, quickly gaining fame. In 1872, Tilley’s father ceased working to become his daughter’s manager. This meant Tilley was the family’s chief income source.

In 1874, Tilley performed in London for the first time. Due to popular demand, the “Great Little Tilley” attended three different venues every night. Whilst audiences loved her, Edward Hyde Villiers (1846-1914), the manager of the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, worried about the gender ambiguity of her act. “Great Little Tilley” neither suggested she was male or female, which Villiers feared was misleading.

After some thought, Tilley’s father decided on a new name for his daughter’s act: Vesta Tilley. Tilley was a diminutive of her real name, Matilda and Vesta referred to the Latin word for “virgin”. In April 1878, Tilley performed under her new name, Vesta Tilley, for the first time at the Royal Music Hall in Holborn.

Tilley typically performed as a dandy or fop, but also embraced other characters, such as clergymen and police officers. By the 1880s, Tilley was the favourite performer at music halls, resulting in an increased salary. At this time, her favourite character was Burlington Bertie, a young aristocratic man who aspires to a life of leisure in the West End of London.

Dressed as the Burlington Bertie, Tilley sang the song of the same name written by Harry B. Norris. The song has since been parodied several times, particularly under the title Burlington Bertie from Bow. Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame performed a rendition of the song while dressed as a man in the 1968 film Star! 

In 1888, Harry Ball passed away, but this did not impact on his daughter’s successful career. Two years later, Tilley married the British theatre impresario Abraham Walter de Frece (1870-1935). The pair met when 25-year-old Tilley starred as the principal boy during the pantomime season at Frece’s father’s Gaiety Music Hall in Liverpool. Frece instantly fell in love with Tilley, but there was a lot of romantic competition amongst other theatre workers. Eventually, Frece managed to take Tilley out to a dance where he expressed his feelings, which she reciprocated. He married “the London Idol” on 16th August 1890 at Brixton Register Office in London.

With her husband as her new manager and songwriter, Tilley completed an extensive tour of Britain followed by six visits to the United States of America. Although she performed within the American vaudeville circuit, Vesta Tilley’s acts were usually family-friendly. By this time, Tilley was the highest-earning woman in England, and in America, theatres offered her $600 a week.

Despite taking on farcical characters, often mocking the upper-classes, Tilley paid a great deal of attention to her attire. At the time, there were no unisex clothing, and female items, particularly underwear, tended to draw attention to a woman’s shape. Not only did Tilley wear male costumes, but she also wore male underwear. She complimented her suits with a wig under which she hid her long, plaited hair.

When Tilley first began acting, music halls were a place for gentlemen only. Her biggest fans, therefore, were men, but during the 1870s women were permitted to attend performances too. The majority of these women delighted in Tilley’s shows, enjoying her sense of independence. Protests for women’s rights were underway, and Vesta Tilley became a prime example of a woman succeeding in a man’s world.

In 1898, Vesta Tilley made one of the first sound recordings in England. She continued to record some of her songs for radio broadcasts throughout her career, including It’s part of a policeman’s duty, I’m the idol of the girls and Following a fellow with a face like me.

By the 1900s, Tilley’s fame was equal to that of music halls in general. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), several “Royal Command Performances” were held at Windsor Castle each year to celebrate the talents of leading actors in London theatres. These performances tended to exclude music hall acts, perhaps because of their bawdy nature, but the growing popularity called for the inclusion of the entertainment.

In 1912, an all-star Royal Command Performance took place at the London’s Palace Theatre in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the first of an annual event later renamed the Royal Variety Performance. His Majesty King George V (1865-1936) and Her Majesty Queen Mary (1867-1953) attended the show starring Vesta Tilley and other great performers of the time, including, singer Harry Lauder (1870-1950), comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940), ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G. H. Chirgwin (1854-1922). Whilst the royals enjoyed the acts, Mary hid behind her programme at the sight of Tilley wearing trousers. She was scandalised to see a woman dressing as a man.

When the First World War began, concerts became less frequent, but Tilley continued to act and sing where she could. Along with her husband, who by this time owned 18 theatres, Tilley organised charity events where she performed dressed in military uniform. Frece composed many of the songs for his wife, but she also sang war songs, such as Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier, and Your King and Country Want You (also known as We Don’t Want to Lose You but We Think You Ought to Go).

During her wartime shows, Tilley encouraged young men to enlist in the army, earning her the nickname “England’s greatest recruiting sergeant”. Within a week, Tilley managed to recruit an entire army unit, known as “The Vesta Tilley Platoon”. Despite encouraging the soldiers to fight, Tilley also acknowledged the horrors of war. In the song I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One, for example, she sang about a soldier who was happy to be injured in battle so that he could return to Blighty (England).

As a result of the war, music halls declined in popularity, and Tilley felt it was time to step down. At 55, her health was deteriorating, which also contributed to her decision to retire. For her farewell tour, which lasted a year, all proceeds were given to local children’s hospitals. On Saturday 5th June 1920, Vesta Tilley performed for the last time at the Coliseum Theatre in London and lived out the rest of her life as Lady de Frece. Her husband had received a knighthood in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours List.

 It was a “wonderful night” and at the end Vesta Tilley was “gradually being submerged under the continuous stream of bouquets”.

The Times, writing about Vesta Tilley’s final performance

Tilley’s retirement coincided with her husband’s decision to go into politics. In 1922, Sir Frece became the Conservative MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester and 1924, the MP for Blackpool. Despite holding these positions, Frece was rarely in the country. Frece relocated to Monte Carlo on the French Riviera to aid his wife’s ailing health and only returned for parliamentary meetings.

In 1931, Sir Frece retired from politics and made the French Riviera his permanent home. During this time, Tilley penned her autobiography Recollections of Vesta Tilley, which she published the year before her husband died in 1935. Frece was 64 at the time of his death; his body lies in Putney Vale Cemetery, southwest London. 

Despite her frail health, Lady Frece continued to live in Monte Carlo for seventeen years. While on a trip to London in 1952, Tilley fell ill and passed away on 16th September at the age of 88. After her funeral, Tilley was reunited with her husband in Putney Vale Cemetery. Many famous people have been buried or cremated in the cemetery, including, Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939), sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Formula One driver James Hunt (1947-93), actor Kenneth More (1914-82) and Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee (1919-96). 

Five years after her death, Compton Bennett (1900-74) directed a biographical film about the life of Vesta Tilley. Starring Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) as Tilley and Laurence Harvey (1928-73) as Walter de Frece, After the Ball told the story of “the life and loves of Music hall singer Vesta Tilley, who married into the nobility.” Unfortunately, the film failed to please the critics: “It’s incomprehensible how director Compton Bennett … could have made such a yawn out of such a good true story.” (TV Guide, 1957)

The British Library used Vesta Tilley as an example of a woman who was unafraid of controversy. She was an inspiration for women keen to challenge convention, and yet not many people remember her name today. Daring to go against gender norms, Vesta Tilley should be an inspiration to all feminists fighting for equality.

She Sells Seashells

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

This tongue twister, written in 1908, is believed to be based on the life and discoveries of one woman, the unsung hero of fossil discovery, Mary Anning. Living and working along the Jurassic Coast, Anning unearthed important finds in the marine fossil beds, changing the way scientists thought about prehistoric life on Earth.

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Mary Anning and her loyal companion, Tray

Mary Anning was born on 21st May 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset where her father, Richard (c.1766-1810) worked as a cabinetmaker and carpenter. To supplement his income and support his large family, Richard combed the beach for “curios” to sell to tourists. Richard and his wife Mary “Molly” (1764-1842) were parents of ten children, only two of which survived infancy. These were Mary, who was named after a deceased older sister, and an older brother Joseph.

The Anning family were religious dissenters and attended a small chapel of “independents” who later became known as Congregationalists. Dissenters were faced with discrimination and were not allowed to study at university, serve in the army or take up certain vocations. As a result, the family was very poor and lived in a cottage so close to the sea that it was often flooded. On one occasion, the Anning’s were forced to climb out of an upstairs window to avoid drowning inside.

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1842 sketch of Anning’s house

Despite being poor, Mary Anning was well-known in the village from a young age. In 1800, when Anning was only 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbour under an elm tree, which was suddenly struck by lighting. The neighbour and the other people under the tree were all killed, however, Mary miraculously survived. Superstitious neighbours later attributed Anning’s intelligence, curiosity and personality to the event.

Schooling was limited for females at the beginning of the nineteenth century so, combined with her parents’ lack of money, Anning could not receive a normal education. Instead, she relied on the Sunday School at the Congregational chapel for lessons in reading and writing. Many Congregational churches at that time concentrated on educating the poor than traditional Sunday School lessons.

Anning’s interest in fossils came primarily from her father, however, she was also inspired by her pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton. In the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, Wheaton had published two articles; one arguing that God created the world in six days and the other urging the congregation to study science and geology.

As soon as she was old enough, Anning’s father allowed her to accompany him and her brother Joseph on fossil-finding expeditions. Mary and Joseph likely did the majority of the work for, by this time, their father was suffering from tuberculosis. He was also suffering from injuries after falling from a cliff. By November 1810, Richard Anning was dead and the family were left with significant debts, forcing them to apply for parish relief.

Meanwhile, Anning and her brother continued collecting and selling fossils to tourists. They set up a stall near the coach stop to draw the attention of people visiting the seaside resort. Labelled as “curios”, the Annings sold significant fossils, possibly without being fully aware of what they were.

Although Mary Anning eventually became famous for her finds, it was her brother Joseph who found the first significant fossil. This was a 4-foot ichthyosaur skull. An ichthyosaurus, meaning “fish lizard”, was an extinct marine reptile from the Mesozoic era. It is estimated they first appeared 250 million years ago and disappeared 90 million years ago. They are likely distant ancestors of the modern-day whale and dolphin.

Ichthyosaur specimens had been discovered before but this skull was the most complete. Yet, what makes this find all the more impressive is what Anning discovered a few months later. At only 12 years of age, Anning found the rest of the skeleton.

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Ichthyosaurus communis specimen

Some people thought Anning had dug up a monster and others thought it was the skeleton of a crocodile, however, Anning’s mother Molly realised it was something special and sold it to Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham House, Norfolk, for £23. Eventually, the fossil ended up in the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum, where it created a lot of attention. Most people in England believed in the Biblical creation, which when taken literally, implied the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Claiming that Anning had found a skeleton that could potentially be 200 million years old, went against many people’s beliefs.

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Mary Anning’s sketch of her first plesiosaur

In 1823, Anning made another discovery: a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus. This creature, meaning “near lizard” in Greek, was a large marine reptile that lived during the Jurassic Period. It had a small head on the end of a long, slender neck. Its body was like that of a turtle with a short tail and elongated legs or flippers. Once again, this discovery went against the traditional story of creation.

The outrage following the discovery of the fossil caused people to claim it was a fake. Even the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) disputed its authenticity and a special meeting was organised by the Geological Society of London to examine the fossil properly. Cuvier eventually admitted the skeleton was real, however, the society was hesitant to record that is was Anning, a mere girl, that had made the discovery. It was not until the early 20th century that women were accepted by the society.

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Sketch of Mary Anning at work by Henry De la Beche

By 1825, Anning was more or less running the family fossil business alone. Her brother Joseph was training to be an upholsterer and, although he remained an active fossil hunter, his career took up the majority of his time.

Anning continued to sell the fossils to tourists but rarely made more than a few shillings at a time. This was a mere pittance and did not take into account the time, effort and danger it took to extract the fossils from the sea bed and rocks. In 1823, Anning had barely escaped from a landslide, which killed her black and white terrier, Tray.

“Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.”
– Mary Anning to a friend, Charlotte Murchison

Despite only selling fossils for a small amount of money, there were so many small invertebrate fossils in the area, such as ammonite shells, that Anning managed to save enough money to purchase her own home in 1826. The 27-year-old’s new home included a glass store-front window, which she used for her shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot.

Due to her previous discoveries, Anning was well-known in the area and soon she was attracting customers throughout Britain, Europe and even from America. Geologists and fossil collectors regularly visited Anning’s shop, which had an ichthyosaur skeleton on display. This was later purchased by King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (1797-1854) in 1844 for the modest sum of £15.

The British-American Geologist George William Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866) was another keen visitor to Anning’s Fossil Depot. In 1827, he purchased many fossils from Anning for his New York Lyceum of Natural History, now known as the New York Academy of Sciences.

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Anning’s first pterosaur

In 1828, Anning discovered the fossil of a ray-finned fish that lived in the Early Jurassic period. Whilst this garnered interest from the Geological Society, it was her discovery at the end of the year that hit the headlines. What at first seemed to be a jumble of bones turned out to be a partial skeleton of a pterosaur.

A pterosaur was, as its Greek name suggests, a winged lizard. With wings reaching over 30 ft, it is estimated these creatures could rival the giraffe in height. They existed during the Mesozoic Era, which occurred between 252 million and 66 million years ago.

William Buckland (1784-1856), a theologian and later Dean of Westminster, was the president of the Geological Society of London at the time of Anning’s discovery. Buckland was one of the very few people who credited Anning in their papers. As well as the pterosaur, Buckland praised Anning for her skill in dissecting cephalopods, a type of squid, and for solving the mystery of coprolites, which Anning suggested correctly were fossilised faeces.

Despite being more knowledgable than most of the people who purchased her fossils, Anning was never allowed to attend any meetings at the Geological Society, not even when it was her finds that were being discussed. A friend of Anning’s, Anna Pinney, reported, “She says the world has used her ill … these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.” It was mainly through people like Buckland that Anning kept abreast of the discussions occurring in London. Buckland was a lecturer on geology at Oxford University, however, he often spent his Christmas holidays in Lyme, assisting Anning in her hunt for fossils.

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Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset

Another good friend of Anning was the palaeontologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855) who had moved to Lyme when he and Anning were teenagers. De la Beche often helped Mary and Joseph on the beaches and continued to keep in touch after moving away to establish himself as one of Britain’s leading geologists. In 1830, De la Beche was inspired to paint Duria Antiquior – A More Ancient Dorset from which he produced and sold prints. This example of palaeoart was the first of its kind, representing prehistoric life based on fossils. De la Beche gave the money raised from the prints to Anning, who, despite being a successful fossil hunter, continually struggled to make ends meet.

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Front piece of The book of the Great Sea Dragons

Gradually, as well as purchasing from her shop, geologists visited Lyme to collect fossils under Anning’s instruction. On one occasion, Anning led Buckland and two other geologists, William Conybeare (1787-1857) and Richard Owen (1804-92) on a fossil-collecting excursion. She also helped the fossil collector Thomas Hawkins (1810-89) search for ichthyosaur fossils. Hawkins went on to write many books, including Memoirs of Icthyosaurii and Plesiosaurii and The Book of the Great Sea Dragons.

Louis Agassiz (1807-73), a Swiss geologist, was so thankful for Anning’s help when he was searching for fish fossils in Lyme Regis in 1834 that he named two specimens after her. These were the Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae, which became extinct around 54 million years ago.

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Cast of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus found by Mary Anning in 1830

Anning’s final major find was a skeleton of a new type of plesiosaur, which she discovered in 1830. She sold the skeleton for £200 but lost all her savings five years later due to a bad investment. It is not certain whether she entrusted her money to a conman or whether the man died suddenly before the investment was finalised, however, there was no way Anning could retrieve the money.

Concerned for her welfare, William Buckland went to both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to persuade them to award Anning a civil list pension in return for her contributions to geology. Although it was unusual for a woman to receive such an annuity, Anning was granted a £25 annual pension, which gave her a certain amount of financial security for the rest of her life.

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Gravestone of Anning and her brother Joseph in St Michael’s churchyard

Anning’s career as a fossil collector was hindered by breast cancer. When the Geological Society learnt about her diagnosis in 1846, they raised money to help her cover the expenses of her medical treatment. Unfortunately, she passed away on 9th March 1847 at the age of 47.

Henry De la Beche wrote a eulogy, which was read at a meeting of the Geological Society and published in the society’s quarterly transaction. This was the first time a woman had been honoured in this way. Later, in 1865, Charles Dickens (1812-70) wrote about Anning’s life in his magazine All the Year Round. He commented on the difficulties she faced as a woman and concluded the article with, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Anning was buried at St Michael’s Church on 15th March 1847. Although Anning had attended the local Congregational church as a child, attendance began to dwindle after the beloved pastor and fossil collector left in 1828. Anning decided to leave the church and its new, less likeable pastor for the Anglican church. Some of her regular customers, including Buckland, Conybeare, and Sedgwick, were members of the clergy and supported Anning’s decision. The move also earned her more respect since the Congregationalists were still distrusted by the locals.

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Mary Anning’s Window, St Michael’s Church

Shortly after her death, members of the Geological Society raised money for a stained-glass window in Anning’s honour, which was unveiled at St Michael’s Church in 1850. “This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” The window shows the six corporal acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners and visiting the sick.

Despite her early death, Anning’s discoveries continued to help geologists and led to the creation of the discipline palaeontology. Although the finds initially caused controversy with the strict teachings of the Church, people were now aware that there had been an “age of reptiles”. They also provided evidence for extinction, which was another thing that caused outrage amongst the devoutly religious. People protested that extinction would imply that God’s creation had been imperfect.

Gradually, people began to adapt to the new ideas and realise they did not evidence that God did not exist and accepted them as new information about God’s creation. Throughout the 20th century, authors began to publish books about Anning’s life, for instance, The Heroine of Lyme Regis: The Story of Mary Anning the Celebrated Geologist by H. A. Forde.

Unfortunately, Anning’s name gradually faded from the history books and science books until she was almost forgotten. Whilst schools taught children about dinosaurs, they did not cover the people who discovered the skeletons and fossils. Fortunately, those working in the field of palaeontology remembered her, holding an international meeting of historians, palaeontologists, fossil collectors, and others interested in Anning’s life in Lyme Regis to mark the 200th anniversary of her birth.

The Natural History Museum credits Anning with many of the fossils in their collection. They have also named the members-only area the Anning Rooms in her memory. The Rooms include a restaurant, lounge and study area.

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In 2018, it was announced that Kate Winslet would play Mary Anning in an upcoming British-Australian romantic drama film called Ammonite. The film is scheduled to be released in 2020. Another film currently in the post-production stage is Mary Anning and the Dinosaur Hunters. This film, unlike Ammonite, which starts later in Anning’s life, is a biopic spanning from her birth into adulthood. Jenny Agutter is cast as Anning’s friend and mentor Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857).

Philpot was an amateur fossil collector who, like Anning, collected fossils in Lyme Regis. She befriended Anning when she was only a child and, despite the 20-year age gap, they remained close for the rest of their lives. Although it was Anning who made the most significant discoveries, Philpot was the person that encouraged Anning to read about geology and understand the fossils she collected.

It is hoped that these films will boost knowledge and interest in Mary Anning and her contributions to science. More and more women are being acknowledged for their achievements during a time when women were not allowed to be credited. Since the anniversary of the Women’s Rights campaign led by the suffragists and suffragettes, more determination has been exerted to discover the women who have been erased from history. Mary Anning is just one of many women who deserve to be remembered.


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