Quaker Feminists in Britain
Though less prominent in the Women’s Suffrage movement in Britain than in the United States, Quaker women nevertheless made important contributions to the advancement of women’s rights in the UK during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Quaker philanthropist, feminist and children’s writer, Priscilla Wakefield ((1751–1832) wrote her book on feminist economics, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement, in 1798, just six years after Mary Wollstoncraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 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, though they remained class-based and limited by ideas of what were ‘suitable’ occupations for the female sex.
Anne Knight (1786 – 1862) was a radical anti-slavery campaigner. Inspired by the refusal of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 to allow American women delegates to take their seats, she began to campaign for women’s rights. She wrote the first leaflet to advocated women’s suffrage in 1847, and challenged the Chartist movement (which advocated so-called ‘universal suffrage’, but for men only) to include voting rights for women in their People’s Charter.
In the 1870s, Ann Maria Priestman (1828-1914) and her sister Mary (1830-1914) were first suffragists to use the method of non-payment of taxes as a means of protest. The sisters saw beyond the question of women’s suffrage and campaigned against the exclusion of women workers from skilled trades. In 1874, Anna Maria read a paper at a meeting of the British Association on the way that protective legislation was used to exclude women from skilled trades. That same year, she and her sister helped to found the first branch of the National Union of Women Workers. In 1896, Anna Maria moved an amendment at a meeting of the Women’s Liberal Federation that potential Liberal Party parliamentary candidates should be vetted on their support for women’s suffrage before selection. The amendment was defeated but led to the establishment of the Union of Practical Suffragists, of which both Mary and Anna Maria were executive members. The objective of the Union was “'to induce the Women's Liberal Associations to work for no Liberal candidate who would vote against Women's Suffrage in the House of Commons.' Anna Maria and Mary joined the Women's Social and Political Union in 1907, when they were both in their seventies, and carried on active support for suffrage activities in the Bristol area.
In 1876, Helen Bright Clark (1840–1927) gave a speech in favour of a bill to remove voting disabilities for women, in opposition to her own father John Bright, a liberal MP. Then in 1883, at the Liberal convention in Leeds, Clark was one of two women delegates to speak passionately in favour of women’s suffrage, before an audience of 1600, including the American campaigner Susan B Anthony. In 1884, she supported a bill put forward by William Woodall MP, which would give voting rights only to married women. Contrary to other more radical campaigners, Clark believed that an incremental approach had a better chance of success. However, Woodall’s bill failed at several attempts to pass in the House of Commons.
Helen Bright Clark’s daughter, Alice Clark (1874–1934) was a social historian and author of Working Life of Women in the 17th Century. Together with her brother, Roger Clark, she founded the Friends League for Women’s Suffrage in 1912, a Quaker group working across Britain in support of voting rights for women.