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Monday, 17 September 2012

Mothers of liberty: how modern liberalism was made by women

I was interested to read that Dr Helen McCabe, of Oxford University, is speaking to the Liberal Democrat History Group at the Lib Dem conference next week on women associated with the development of Liberal political thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Look at the four names quoted; Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Harriet Taylor Mill and Barbara Bodichon. The first two are familiar in modern Unitarian circles; I wondered if Unitarianism had influenced the other two?

To my surprise (although I probably shouldn’t be) they too had Unitarian connections. These four “Mothers of Liberty” had clearly moved in the Unitarian and Radical circles that pioneered women’s rights and universal suffrage.

Mary Wollstonecraft attended Newington Green Unitarian Chapel during the ministry of Dr Richard Price. You can still go and sit at a Sunday morning service in the original box pew where she reputedly sat. Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792) she is often described as the “mother of feminism”. Dr Price, a Welsh radical dissenter, was a crucial influence on her thinking between 1784 and 1786. As the recent edition of The Inquirer (15 September 2012) shows he was a republican who supported the American colonists in their War of Independence.

Harriet Martineau, was one of the first women writers and journalists. She was brought up in a Unitarian family in Norwich. Her brother James, from whom she was later famously estranged, emerged as the foremost Unitarian theologian of the 19th Century. She argued that apparent differences in intellect between men and women were the product of educational discrimination.

She was best known as a populariser of political economy, though her career spanned many other aspects of Victorian literary culture. She shot to fame in 1832 as author of Illustrations of Political Economy - twenty-four short stories showing how economic conditions impacted on the lives of ordinary people in a variety of social environments.

She visited America from 1834-6 and identified with the anti-slavery cause, which she promoted in her journalism for the rest of her working life. She also wrote travel books on America and the Middle East, besides political analyses of conditions in India and Ireland, and can be regarded as the first significant British woman sociologist.

Harriet Taylor Mill was a philosopher and women’s rights advocate. Her second husband was John Stuart Mill and it is clear she influenced much of his writing. She produced a number of essays including “The enfranchisement of women” and a few articles for the Unitarian Journal “The Monthly Repository”. She and her first husband John were active in Unitarian circles and were friendly with William Johnson Fox, a Unitarian Minister and early advocate for women’s rights

Barbara Leigh Smith, later Mrs Bodichon, was an educationalist, artist and early feminist. She was the extramarital child of Benjamin Leigh Smith, Liberal MP for Sudbury and then Norwich. David Bebbington believes that his domestic arrangements made active Unitarian allegiance unlikely.  Her grandfather, however, was William Smith MP, the well-known abolitionist and dissenting and Unitarian parliamentary leader. He was deeply devoted to her and his other grandchildren from amongst the Nightingale and Bonham-carter families.

She and a group of friends met in the 1850’s in London to discuss women's rights, and became known as "The Ladies of Langham Place". This became one of the first organised women’s movements in Britain. They pursued many causes vigorously, including their Married Women’s Property Committee. In 1854 she published her Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women, which had a useful effect in helping forward the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882. In 1857 she married an eminent French physician, Dr Eugene Bodichon.  She helped establish what evolved into Girton College, Cambridge. She was a Unitarian who wrote of Theodore Parker:” He prayed to the Creator, the infinite Mother of us all (always using Mother instead of Father in this prayer). It was the prayer of all I ever heard in my life which was the truest to my individual soul.”

Four women, influenced by Unitarian thinking, who contributed to social and political progress. They were truly “Mothers of Liberty”.

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