Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

As an advocate of ‘free love’, a pacifist and more controversially a secularist, the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy did not exactly lead a conventional life. Born in Eccles in 1833 and self-educated, she went on to become a significant pioneer of the British women’s emancipation movement. She was at the heart of almost every Victorian feminist campaign ranging from the demand for better education, the right to vote and the rights of prostitutes to the sensitive issue of marital rape.

Unfortunately, her rather forthright nature as well as the scandal surrounding her pregnancy out of wedlock meant that she was marginalised in official histories. In accounts by the Pankhurst family, she is unfairly portrayed as a bad mother, a scandalous ‘free love’ secularist; her partner Ben Elmy is painted as a cruel and unfaithful man. Maureen Wright, who teaches history at the University of Portsmouth, wanted to challenge that misrepresentation with a more balanced look at Wolstenholme-Elmy’s life.

In her book Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman, Wright portrays the complex and also contradictory nature of her subject. The book is broken down into eight chapters which chart Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s life from her birth to her death at the age of 84 in March 1918 – just days after hearing the good news that women had been granted the right to vote. Arwa Aburawa interviewed Maureen Wright for Manchester Radical History.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was born in Eccles, Salford in December 1833. Can you tell a little about her early experiences and how they help shape her activism around education and universal suffrage?

Maureen Wright: Although born in Eccles, Elizabeth’s father Joseph Wolstenholme was an Independent Methodist Minister and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard and Mary Clarke of Roe Green, Salford. By the time Miss Wolstenholme was 12 she had lost both her parents. Her mother had died when she was little more than a week old and her father died in 1845. At that time Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Jnr., became the wards of their maternal Uncle, George Clarke of Worsley. While Joseph Jnr, aged 17, became a student of mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, Elizabeth’s two years of secondary education drew to a close when she was just 16, her Uncle having declared that by then she had ‘learnt everything it was necessary for a woman to know’.

But Elizabeth defied her guardian and studied privately, preparing herself to be a governess and, latterly, headmistress of her own girls’ school. She had no desire to remain in the domestic realm. She placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realised what marriage meant for women – a “lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence” with no control over their actions or autonomy over their own bodies.

Elizabeth’s political commitment was to liberal ideals. She was brought up in the environment of the ‘Manchester Radicals’ – namely the group of Quaker-inspired activists gathered around Richard Cobden and John Bright and others who had led the anti-Corn Law movement in the city. She believed wholeheartedly in the rights of the individual. For her, votes for women was a simple matter of women receiving the vote ‘on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men’ – for it must be remembered that, at this time, it was property, not individuality, that enabled men to claim citizenship. When she placed her signature on the petition for women’s suffrage in 1866 Elizabeth was asking not for special treatment for women, but equal treatment or “justice”.

Although Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was part of a quite a small groups of women emancipators working in the nineteenth century, she never really got much recognition for her work. Why do you think that was?

Two of the earliest significant histories of British women’s suffragism were written by Ray Strachey and E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Strachey’s book, The Cause, (1928) told the story from the point of view of the ‘constitutional’ suffragists – those women who did not support the militancy of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Wolstenholme Elmy’s opinion of these activists was not always complimentary as she believed that their commitment to ‘the cause’ was not total. Many were content, she believed, “to give their name” to the movement without engaging sacrificially to its work. Elizabeth’s somewhat scandalous private life caused her to be criticised by many among this more conservative group, and thus she received only a couple of mentions in Strachey’s work.

The other significant book, The Suffragette Movement, (1931) was written by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Sylvia. While Pankhurst did acknowledge Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the early years of women’s suffragism from the 1860s, she clearly wanted to place her mother and her father (the “Red Doctor”, socialist lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst) in the premier roles. Elizabeth was, therefore, marginalised and damned with faint praise as an overworked woman and an ‘instrument in the grasp of progress’ – her small physical frame likened to that of a ‘Jenny Wren’. Subsequent scholars failed to realise her significance to the movement until the 1980s when revisionist scholars began to uncover the extent of her contribution. My biography is the first full-length narrative of Elizabeth’s life, some 30 years after the first call was made for it to be written!

Elizabeth’s early passion was education for women. Tell us a little about how that emerged and the role Manchester played in her development as a campaigner.

When Elizabeth returned to Worsley in 1854 from undertaking two years work as a governess in Bedfordshire it was to inherit a ‘small capital’ on her 21st birthday. Her guardian, who, remember, had advised her against undertaking higher education herself, now suggested that she invest her money in the establishment of a boarding school for middle-class girls. Elizabeth established precisely such a school, at The Grange in Boothstown Road, which catered for between 12-16 teenage pupils. In the spring of 1867 she moved her school to Moody Hall, a substantial Georgian residence in the town of Congleton where she continued in her role of Headmistress for another 4 years. Before her move to Cheshire Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865, and her pupils were among the first to sit the Cambridge Local Examination.

In 1866, Elizabeth had travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission into Education – known as the Taunton Commission. She was one of the first women in the country to undertake such a role, but did not appear at all daunted at the prospect. If one reads the transcript of her evidence, it’s obvious that her answers were given in a clear and direct manner. As she tells of her work at The Grange, it’s clear too that the curriculum she taught was not one only of female “accomplishments” (such as singing, dancing and drawing) but included political economy, mathematics and other skills thought to be to ‘masculine’ in nature for a girls’ school. Elizabeth sought to fit her girls for not only the world of marriage and motherhood, but for the world of work, and many of them went on to become Headmistresses of schools.

It became increasingly difficult, however, at this time for Elizabeth to continue her career. This was because she was turning against the Christian faith – the teaching of which was, of course, a core element in the Victorian curriculum. The loss of her faith caused Elizabeth deep personal pain and unhappiness and ultimately she couldn’t force herself against her conscience to teach something in which she no longer believed. Thus she abandoned Moody Hall for a new life as the first professional employee of the women’s emancipation movement.

From around 1870, EWE’s role as a feminist took precedence over her vocation in education. What were the major campaigns she worked on and what long-term influence did she have?

Before her move to Congleton, Elizabeth had been active in many areas of female emancipation in Manchester. These included: The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Branch of the Society for the Employment of Women and the Northern Counties League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was a founder member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (MWPC), established in the winter of 1867/8 to campaign for the rights of women in marriage. She was to be its Secretary until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882. In addition, she was an Executive Committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) from 1870.

Her paid work however (from 1871-74) was as Secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). She was based in London and she termed her work as being as a ‘scrutinizer’ of parliamentary practice – for which her salary was the princely sum of £300 per annum. So effective a political lobbyist did she prove that MPs gave her a nickname – the ‘parliamentary watch-dog’ – and, upon seeing her tiny figure approaching them along the corridors of power, many of the country’s greatest would quake in fear. Elizabeth’s tenacity shines through here. She was a life-long advocate of “small government”, in which the individual’s personal right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ should be as free from government intervention as possible.

The ‘New’ Liberalism of the late-nineteenth century, with its increased emphasis on regulating public behaviour through legislation, was anathema to her. Elizabeth worked tirelessly and travelled extensively to promote the organisation’s objective of an equal right to live in a just society. She published copious reports, minutes, pamphlets and articles and Elizabeth continued her labours in other areas. She was, for example, a Committee member of the Central Committee of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage and remained strongly committed to the work of both the LNA and the MWPC. In fact, one begins to wonder how she ever found enough hours in her day!

One radical aspect of Elizabeth WE is that she was secularist and an advocate of ‘free love’. This was quite hard for many of her colleagues to deal with and was particularly problematic when she got pregnant. Was she perceived as too radical in some ways?

It was when Elizabeth was headmistress of Moody Hall School in Congleton she met the man who would become her life-long companion. Benjamin Elmy was from a Suffolk family, he owned three silk-crepe mills in Congleton but his avowed secularism was always a matter of concern for the town’s civic leaders. One of the most divisive issues was the charge that secularists advocated ‘free love’ (living together un-wed), something which undermined the rigid moral structures of mid-Victorian society.

The couple undertook a ‘commitment’ ceremony in the spring of 1874, making solemn vows to one another before witnesses. But when this and Elizabeth’s subsequent pregnancy became known more widely, there was general outrage and condemnation within their circle of friends. Despite her expressed wish that her marriage (with took place under some duress in October 1874 in London) should have no effect upon her work for women, the opposite was true and the couple were forced to retire from public life for a short period. Elizabeth did however continue her Secretary’s role with the MWPC, working ‘underground’ and unacknowledged in the organisation’s reports for another six years – until her ‘rehabilitation’ in 1880.

Those of Elizabeth’s colleagues who knew of her secularism were prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to it before her pregnancy – one reason being that they knew her work was exemplary and her shoes would be difficult to fill. However, the immanent arrival of her son Frank proved to be the catalyst that changed attitudes towards her.

Lydia Becker (a close friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s since 1867) demanded at one meeting that the Registers at Kensington be searched to confirm that the October wedding had taken place. Another close friend since 1866, the physically frail Josephine Butler, recorded in a letter from her sickbed that she wished she had ‘never heard of such people as the Elmys’. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, never especially close to Elizabeth, chastised her with the fact that she had brought the women’s movement into disrepute. For Elizabeth the hurt of their rejection of friends was so great that she retired to Congleton for the birth ‘wishing never to be spoken of again’. Obviously, her resolve on this matter did not last long.

Although Elizabeth WE preferred to work outside party politics (apart from her support for the Independent Labour Party), there were political movements and figures which influenced her. Could you talk us through the main players which informed her political consciousness?

Elizabeth believed that party politics ‘ruined work’, as it caused divisions and factionalism where there should be a united desire to improve life for all. The bedrock of this belief, I believe, came from the Quaker influences of her early life. She was a lifelong pacifist, a cause to which she held true even throughout the jingoism of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. The family refused, in 1902, to join in the celebrations in Congleton Park after peace was restored and although there are no first-hand sources to confirm or deny this, I feel sure Elizabeth’s reaction to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would have been one of complete horror.

Though of radical-Liberal heritage, Elizabeth found William E. Gladstone, three times PM of the United Kingdom, a trial. She believed he was the biggest stumbling block to women’s freedom, as he was known to use his veto as Prime Minister to prevent the passage of women’s suffrage bills through parliament. Elizabeth herself became a member of the Manchester Central Branch of the ILP in 1905 but her commitment to socialism in its strictest sense was never total, unlike that of her husband, who she wrote of as being an ‘ardent socialist’ until his death in March 1906.

The truth about Elizabeth’s politics is that she was, first and last, a humanitarian and she was not above using any party-political machinery she could to promote her work. As secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union from 1891-99 she had as much contact with the labour movement’s Women’s Co-operative Guild and Trades’ Unions as she did with the Conservative’s Primrose Dames, using these and many other organisations to promote feminist views and propaganda.

The decision in 1909 to force feed the militants of the WSPU was seen by Elizabeth as ‘state torture’ – even though she condemned the actions of the women themselves, which grew increasingly more violent after 1912. She berated them for their antics of window smashing, axe throwing and arson for, she wrote, “how could they be certain not to hurt the innocent?” From that moment on (and bear in mind she was almost 80 years old) she continued her campaigning as a ‘non-militant’ – even leading the NUWSS procession into her home town of Congleton in 1913. By now, as an octogenarian, she had earned the respect even of her former critics.

One of the controversial topics which Elizabeth WE spoke about was marital rape- indeed she was the first woman to speak on the issue in a public platform. Why did she feel so strongly about this issue?

Elizabeth’s abhorrence of marital rape became clear in 1880, when she stood on the platform of the London Dialectical Society to declare her desire to see the practice criminalised. Her opposition was in part built on personal reasons and a desire to see a legal inequality quashed.
Wives were often beaten or starved for non-compliance or, as evidence from one notable legal case of 1891 shows, imprisoned against their will. Elizabeth saw the crime of marital rape as one common to women of all classes, and thus a cause of unity. At a moment when even polite society was concerned with the ever-increasing rise in sexually transmitted diseases she found a receptive audience, in some quarters, for her views.

That is not to say her path in this regard was an easy one; far from it, for she found herself apologising to her 1880 audience for speaking, as a woman, on so ‘delicate’ an issue in public. Of all the disadvantages married women faced Elizabeth believed this ‘sex slavery’, as she termed, it to be the worst. For all her efforts, Elizabeth did not see a law passed against it in her lifetime – in fact this did not pass the Statute Book until 1991.

Reading through some of the exchanges and letters of Elizabeth WE it’s clear that whilst she was hard to work with at times, people respected her and her work for the feminist movement deeply. One example of this, is the financial support she received after the death of her husband.

Ben Elmy’s firm was a victim of the textile recession in north-west England in the late-1880s and was sold at a significant loss. After his death, Elizabeth and her son Frank had little more than their house and the £52 a year Frank earned as a local council rate collector. What saved them financially was the assistance of Elizabeth’s colleagues, led by Harriet McIlquham along with Frances Rowe and Louisa Martindale. These women could see beyond the sometimes acerbic exterior to the woman beneath and, to ease her material burdens, established the ‘Grateful Fund’ in the mid-1890s, which provided an income for the Elmys of £1.00 per week. The ‘Grateful Fund’ and, latterly, a Testimonial organised in 1910 by (among others) Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst, provided for her care in the final years of her life.

Sometimes, as Elizabeth’s letters show, the money kept the family from real poverty – although she only accepted it on the grounds that it let her work continue. The reality is that as many as found Elizabeth difficult found her vulnerable, and they loved her with real devotion and commitment, understanding that she worked from pure, selfless motives. Elizabeth’s significant collections of letters and other documents, which form the documentary base for the biography, are wonderful resources and they tell many times of her gratefulness to her benefactors. Often written late at night, after she had completed a full day of domestic and political work, her letters to Harriet McIlquham are full of love and tender concern.

Also, albeit infrequently, they show what one eminent historian has referred to as ‘bile and vitriol’, spiteful commentaries regarding colleagues who, Elizabeth believes, have fallen from the true, selfless, feminist path. Particular targets of criticism include Florence Fenwick Miller, Ursula Bright (sister-in-law of John Bright), Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the leadership of the NUWSS. It is true that some of these letters can be read as being excessively critical of some of her colleagues, but the context in which she wrote them is important – particularly when she was under severe strain following Ben Elmy’s business failure in 1888. The fact that she was herself working over 50 hours a week in the textile mill to try and save its fortunes, plus her ‘normal’ domestic duties and feminist campaigning, perhaps makes her somewhat harsh style a little more understandable.

What do you think is the key aspect of EWE’s legacy?

Simply, her tenacity. Without her single-mindedness and untiring focus, I wonder just how successful Victorian feminists would have been in changing so many of the laws that repressed women in all circumstances of life. Elizabeth was foremost in campaigns which made it possible, for example, for working women to have a right to their own income; for separated wives to have increased rights of access to their children; and for the campaign for the vote to be rooted not in the possession of property but simply on grounds of individual autonomy. She died having achieving much of what she had set out to do. The parliamentary vote had been granted to women over thirty year of age (and to women University graduates) a mere six days before her death.

As I have written in the conclusion to the book, it is satisfying that she died at a moment of triumph in feminist history but she still would not have been content because the issue of ‘sex slavery’ had still not been resolved. Her true legacy though is that she never stalled in her objectives, no matter how ill or tired, no matter what her age or personal circumstances, she put all thoughts of self aside. Her place in history should be, perhaps, as one of England’s greatest humanitarians.

Title: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman
Author: Maureen Wright
Price: £65.00 (hardback)
Published: 2011
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8109-5

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

  1. Pingback: The Forgotten Victorian Feminist – Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy | Arwa's Freelance Site

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