On this day in history….22nd April 1830

On this day in history : 22nd April 1830 – The birth of suffragist and educator Sarah Emily Davies – who co-founded and was an early mistress of the first English college to educate women….

Portrait of Emily Davies – Public domain

Emily was born in Southampton but spent most of her childhood in Gateshead, where her father, the Reverend John Davies, was rector…. She was educated at home, whilst her three brothers were sent to boarding school…. She was particularly close to her eldest brother, John Llewelyn, who was to be very successful in his studies at Cambridge University…. This only made Emily realise just how much women were missing out on….

After the death of her father Emily and her mother were to move to London, to 17 Cunningham Place – a home found for them by John Llewelyn…. She was to become editor of ‘The English Woman’s Journal’ and began to mix with women’s rights advocates, such as Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson, Millicent Fawcett and Barbara Bodichon…. She was especially good friends with Elizabeth – who was to become the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England…. Emily had considered a career in medicine herself but realised that with her poor early education that this was practically impossible…. She actively encouraged Elizabeth in her quest….

In 1865 Emily became a founding member of the Kensington Society, a women’s discussion group where suffragists would meet to plan campaigns – in 1866 the Society formed the London Suffrage Committee…. They petitioned Parliament to allow women to vote – but were unsuccessful….

Emily began to campaign for a women’s right to education and the ability to obtain degrees and qualifications…. She also played a major role in gaining girls’ access to secondary education examinations…. By now she had decided to devote her life to this campaign – and next she turned her attention to getting women admission to universities…. At this time only men were permitted to attend – she insisted women should be admitted on the same terms as men….

In 1869 Emily led the founding of Britain’s first college for women; with the support of Barbara Bodichon, Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss the Girton College was established in Hitchin, Hertfordshire….the first mistress was Charlotte Manning…. The college was later to relocate in 1873 to just outside Cambridge….

Girton College during the 1890s – Public domain

Emily served on the London School Board from 1870-1873 and in 1870 was responsible for the University of London College’s admission of women for the first time…. She was to serve as mistress at Girton College from 1873-1875 – and then took on the role of Secretary until 1904…. However, it was not until 1940 that Cambridge University finally conceded and began to grant full degrees to women….

During her lifetime Emily was to write two books – ‘The Higher Education of Women’ (1866) and ‘Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women 1860-1908’ (1910)…. Emily died in Hampstead, London, on the 13th of July 1921….

On this day in history….22nd March 1808

On this day in history : 22nd March 1808 – The birth of author, social reformer and feminist Caroline Norton, who campaigned for women’s rights in Victorian England….

Caroline Norton – Public domain

Born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan in London, Caroline was the granddaughter of Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinkley Sheridan…. Her father was Thomas Sheridan, a soldier and her mother was Scottish novelist Caroline Henrietta Callender…. Tragically Thomas died in 1817 whilst serving in South Africa – he left his family virtually penniless….

Caroline was the second of three daughters, all known as beauties and sometimes referred to as ‘The Three Graces’…. Caroline herself was a high-spirited girl and quick of tongue…. Her mother, finding it difficult to control her, packed her off to boarding school in Shalford, Surrey when she was 16….

Some of the girls attending the school were invited to Wonersh Park, the home of local landowner William Norton, Lord Grantley…. It was here that Caroline caught the eye of Lord Grantley’s younger brother, George Norton…. He made up his mind there and then that he was going to marry her…. He wasted no time in writing to her mother….who whilst keen to see her daughter married off, insisted that they wait for three years…. The marriage took place in 1827, she was 19 and not overly happy about the union but agreed as she was all too aware of her family’s continuing financial difficulties….

The marriage was a disaster from the start…. He was somewhat dull, jealous – and a little dim…. She was bright, quick-witted and flirtatious…. They were also completely incompatible in their political views…. Norton was a hardline Tory – and MP for Guildford – whereas Caroline had liberal tendencies and like her grandfather she supported the Whigs…. Because she dared to voice her opinions she suffered regular, savage beatings at the hands of her husband….

Caroline buried herself in her writing…. She had shown a gift for verse from an early age…. It was two such pieces, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ in 1829 and ‘The Undying One’ in 1830, that led to her being appointed editor of the publications ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine’….thus giving her some financial independence…. She counted amongst her close friends influential people, such as Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Trelawney, Fanny Kemble and the then Home Secretary Lord Melbourne….

Portrait engraving of Caroline from one of her books – Tucker Collection – New York Library Archives – Public domain

Caroline finally left her husband in 1836…. Norton retaliated by accusing her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne…. It was a friendship he had initially encouraged – for his own gains…. Having lost his Conservative seat Norton had hoped that by using her friendship with Melbourne she could secure him a highly-paid government post…. Caroline and Melbourne, a widower who liked the ladies, were to become the subject of gossip – something Norton had in the beginning turned a blind eye to…. But once his wife had left him he sued Melbourne for seducing her…. He lost the case but Caroline’s reputation was in tatters…. To add to her misery Norton denied her access to their three young sons, Fletcher b.1829, Brinsley b.1831 and William b.1833…. Caroline’s battle against her husband for access to her boys eventually led to the Infant Custody Bill, 1839….

Norton then tried to claim the money she earned from her writing…. This prompted her to write to Queen Victoria, as part of a campaign to ensure women were supported after divorce…. The letter was published and became influential in helping the Marriage and Divorce Act 1857 succeed….

Watercolour sketch of Caroline by Emma Fergusson, 1860, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – Image : Stephencdickson – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Caroline herself was refused a divorce by her husband – she was not released from the legality of the marriage until his death in 1875…. Two years later, in March 1877, she married her old friend of 25 years, Sir William Stirling Maxwell, the Scottish historical writer and politician…. Sadly only three months later, on the 15th of June 1877, Caroline was to die….

On this day in history….10th October 1903

On this day in history : 10th October 1903 – Emmeline Pankhurst forms the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – to fight for women’s emancipation in Britain….

Emmeline Pankhurst c.1913 – Photo credit: Matzene, Chicago. Restored by Adam Cuerden – Public domain

The WSPU was founded at 62, Nelson Street, Manchester – the home of the Pankhurst family…. Emmeline, her husband Richard and their daughters Christabel and Sylvia had all previously been active members of the Independent Labour Party, which was founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie, who was a family friend…. (Hardie went on to form the Labour Party)….

Minolta DSC
62, Nelson Street, where the WSPU was formed – Photo credit: Kurt Adkins (WebHamster) CC BY-SA 3.0

Many women had put their faith in the ILP – believing it to be the party to fight for their cause…. However, Emmeline became disillusioned with the party – finding its commitment and support of female suffrage half-hearted….a lot of talk and promises but nothing was happening…. She invited a group of women members of the ILP to her home and together they formed the WSPU…. Their motto ~ “Deeds, not words”….

For further reading – A stitch in time….

On this day in history….7th October 1920

On this day in history : 7th October 1920 – Women are granted the right for full admission and to become members of Oxford University….

Image credit : Lawrence OP via flickr

From the late 1870s women had been allowed to attend lectures, take the same examinations as men and gain honours…. However, they were unable to receive the degrees that they would have been entitled to had they of been men…. Between 1904 and 1907 some women travelled to Dublin – the university there being more relaxed and willing to award degrees to women – and they became known as ‘Steamboat Ladies’….

By 1920 four women’s colleges had been established;- Lady Margaret Hall, St. Hugh’s, Somerville and St. Hilda’s…. Women who had previously gained honours were able to return to ‘matriculate’ – go through the formal admission ceremony to the university – and then have the degree they were now entitled to awarded to them in another formal ceremony….At the very first of these ceremonies more than forty women attended….

Lady Margaret Hall – Herbi1922 CC BY-SA 4.0

It wasn’t totally equal rights immediately though…. A quota limiting how many women could enrol at any one time was not abolished until 1957…. The colleges remained single-sex until the 1970s – the last single-sex college, St. Benet’s Hall, finally opened its doors to women in 2015….

Students arriving for a matriculation ceremony at Oxford – Toby Ord CC BY-SA 2.5

On this day in history….14th July 1967

On this day in history : 14th July 1967 – Abortion is legalised in Britain, ending the misery of many of the illegal backstreet terminations that claimed the lives of so many women….

ImageCreator CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout history attitude towards abortion in the Western World had been more relaxed – it was considered the foetus was part of the woman and abortion was acceptable providing it took place before ‘quickening’ started – or when the baby’s movements began to be felt (16-20 weeks)…. However, towards the end of the 18th century attitudes began to change – including in Britain….

Art from a 13th century illuminated manuscript – featuring a herbalist preparing a concoction containing pennyroyal for a woman – Public domain

In 1803 The Ellenborough Act was brought in…. Any abortions carried out after quickening carried the death penalty…. In 1837 the Act was amended to include all abortion…. This was relaxed in 1861 with The offences Against the Person Act, which meant performing an abortion or trying to self abort carried a sentence of life imprisonment….

The Infant Life Preservation Act replaced this in 1929 – making it to crime to kill a viable foetus in all cases except when an expectant mother’s life was at risk…. However, this didn’t last for long – a succession of laws followed to eventually all but totally take away even this access to a termination….

During the 1930s MPs and women’s groups began to audibly voice concerns about the loss of life and damage to women’s health…. Between 1923-33 around 15% of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions…. This eventually led to the establishment of The Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936…. In 1938 Dr Alex Bourne was acquitted for performing an illegal abortion – this case set a precedence….and during the 1950s support for reform grew…. The contraceptive pill arrived in the 1960s (initially for married women only) and finally The Abortion Act, sponsored by David Steel MP came in 1967….coming into effect as law on the 27th of April 1968…. Abortion became legal under certain circumstances, with the approval of two doctors…. At last control over women was coming to an end….though it didn’t happen overnight – but it was a start….

Cooperative Women Demand Legislation of Abortion, 1934 – The Wellcome Collection CC BY

Before the Act came in to force it is estimated some 100,000 women had undergone backstreet abortions – but in reality it is likely the number was much higher than this…. Other women resorted to DIY methods; drinking bleach, scalding baths, moving heavy furniture or even using a knitting needle or crochet hook on themselves…. Advertisements would appear in newspapers for cures for ‘menstrual blockages’ – but women knew these were abortion aids…. One of the most common and cheapest was for a lead based potion – which was responsible for poisoning and blinding many women…. (Below is an example of an advertisement for Beecham’s Pills from the 1880s – which discreetly claimed to be an abortion aid in the small print – I am not suggesting this was the lead based preparation previously mentioned)….

Suggestive advertisment for the use of Beecham’s Pills as an abortion aid, 1880s…. Beecham’s (Life time : na) CC BY-SA 3.0

A network of backstreet abortionists spread across the country…. Extra staff had to be drafted in to hospital accident and emergency departments on Friday nights – as Friday, being pay-day, would be the time many women would seek out the services of the illegal abortionists…. Often performing the ‘operation’ in squalid conditions, the abortionist would usually be unskilled – although occasionally they may have had limited nursing experience – sometimes they could even be a friend or relative of the woman…. Inevitably things often went wrong and emergency medical help had to be sought…. Sometimes there was loss of life….to avoid police questioning and bringing shame on the families sympathetic doctors were known to lie on death certificates, saying the woman had died of miscarriage….

These weren’t all ‘fallen women’…. many already had large families and simply could not afford to feed another mouth…. So many women were forced to take such drastic measures….