Priscilla Wakefield (née Bell) was an early Quaker feminist and philanthropist. She established England’s first savings bank, and wrote many books for young people on scientific subjects. Her book on feminist economics, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement, was published in 1798, just six years after Mary Wollstoncraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Wakefield was born in Tottenham, London UK to a long-established and prominent Quaker family. She was the great-granddaughter of the Quaker mystic, Robert Barclay, the granddaughter of banker David Barclay, and the aunt of prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry. She married the Quaker businessman, Edward Wakefield, in 1771. The couple had three children.
In 1791 Wakefield founded the Lying-In Charity for Women near her home in Tottenham, to support around 120 poor women a year, during and immediately after childbirth. The following year, she founded a School for Industry for 36 girls who were taught reading, writing and arithmetic as well as sewing and knitting.
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Her books also discuss the evils of slavery and advocate the boycotting of slave-produced goods.
In 1798, she published her book on feminist economics Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement. In it, she advocated for more educational and employment opportunities for women, and called for institutions to be set up to train women teachers.
Her ideas were well ahead of their time, but they remained class-based and limited by ideas of what were suitable occupations for the female sex. In her book she wrote:
There are many branches of science, as well as useful occupations, in which women may employ their time and their talents, beneficially to themselves and to the community, without destroying the peculiar characteristic of their sex, or exceeding the most exact limits of modesty and decorum.
She also described in more general terms what she considered to be suitable occupations for what she saw as three classes of women. She envisaged that 'first and second classes' of women might be employed in writing, painting, engraving, sculpture, music and landscape gardening, while those of the 'third class' might be suitable for teaching, working in shops, the stationery business, apothecary’s work, pastry and candy-making, light lathe work and toy-making. Farming was also, according to Wakefield, a suitable occupation for women.
Her ideas remained practical as well as theoretical. The same year as Reflections was published, she independently established one of England’s two earliest savings banks (which she called a frugality bank, after a term coined by the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham) in Ship Inn Yard in Tottenham. Her savings bank allowed those on low incomes (such as labourers and servants) to save small amounts from their income that would provide for them in old age or if they became ill. Children could also save a penny a month towards clothing and apprenticeships. Wakefield’s bank inspired others and survived until nationalised with the creation of the Post Office Savings Bank in 1865.
Wakefield died in Ipswich, at the house of her daughter, aged 81.