A Women’s Place
If a test of civilization be sought, none can be so sure as the condition of that half of society over which the other half has power. Harriet Martineau 1837.
In 1918 Parliament passed an act granting the vote to 8.4 million women over the age of 30 in Britain. This was the culmination of a struggle with roots extending far back into the 19th century. To celebrate this most significant centenary museums across Cumbria are mounting exhibitions under the banner of ‘Women of Cumbria’. Ambleside has a particular claim in this respect as the home of a number of internationally influential women. With this in mind we have mounted our own exhibition under the heading of ‘A Women’s Place: Ambleside’s Feminist Legacy’.
The campaign for women’s rights in the 19th century is a complex story. Largely the territory of the middle-class, campaigns advanced on several fronts, and not all active women supported all causes. There were three main thrusts; the fight for married women’s property rights; higher education for women, and the suffrage.
Whilst unmarried women and widows could own property, a married woman’s assets became the property of her husband. Reflected in the literature of the day, a common theme was that of the wastrel husband squandering his wife’s fortunes. This parlous situation led to the formation in London of a group of women, led by Barbara Bodichon, to campaign against the law. Known as ‘The Langham Place Group’, this group became the nucleus of the fight for women’s rights and included Ambleside residents Harriet Martineau and Anne Jemima Clough. The campaign resulted in the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which gave a married woman rights as a separate legal entity to her husband enabling her to keep control of her own assets.
At the same time women were also demanding the right to enter into the professions, particularly medicine, which required a higher level of education than was available to them. Harriet Martineau was a firm proponent of women’s education. She argued that since many Victorian women remained unmarried, they should have the right to an education that enabled them to support themselves. Anne Jemima
Clough became closely involved in the progressive development of higher education leading to the foundation of women’s university colleges. Separately, Charlotte Mason was promoting her theories on education and particularly the education of women for a career. This led to her founding her college in Ambleside in 1894.
Ambleside and its surrounding district developed a remarkable intellectual culture in which women played an important role. The Armitt Sisters, Sophia, Annie and Mary Lousia arrived in the 1880’s and became a focus for the intellectual life of the town. Mary was a historian and musicologist, Sophia an artist and naturalist, and Annie a novelist, short story writer and poet. One must also mention Beatrix Potter who, although having little interest in the suffrage issue, was a supporter of higher education for women. She is most notable as an example of a Victorian woman who resolved to live her life on her own terms as a scientist, writer, farmer, business woman and conservationist, and as such continues to be an inspiration to many women.
Ambleside had an educated population with a particularly high percentage of independent women, and as the suffrage campaign accelerated in the years up to World War l, Helen Cunliffe and Amy Sharp led a large branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) which by 1913 had 182 members. Meanwhile, Hawkshead had a flourishing branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union whose suffragettes took a more direct line of action. The campaign was put into abeyance on the declaration of war, but by its end the contribution of women, particularly on the home front, meant that women’s suffrage was undeniable.
By today’s norms these women would be considered relatively conservative, and most would not have recognised the modern concept of feminism. But in their words and actions they demonstrated what women were capable of, and in so doing laid the foundations for a more equitable society.