- Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement: The Biography of an Insurgent Woman by Maureen Wright
This valuable work, the first full-length biography of feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy (1833–1918), combines close political analysis [End Page 202] with comprehensive narrative. While this book does not change the fields of Victorian, women’s, feminist, or suffrage history, it is a solid and detailed contribution to all of them.
Wolstenholme Elmy was a politically radical feminist, but her biographer is a methodologically conservative feminist historian (the 2007 dissertation on which the book is based was directed by eminent feminist historian June Purvis, whose influence is apparent). Wright believes that historical biographers can get “under the skin” of their subjects (28) and refers to Wolstenholme Elmy by her first name because “after almost a decade of researching her … I have come to think of her as ‘Elizabeth’” (10–11). Wright aims to restore “Wolstenholme Elmy’s life-narrative to suffrage history” (20), to show that Wolstenholme Elmy “was foremost among the Radical suffragists of her generation,” and to prove that her “radicalism [was] a force for change” (11), and she is successful at the first two.
The book moves chronologically through Wolstenholme Elmy’s long career. It considers Wolstenholme Elmy as a political theorist—she was once called “the grey matter in the brains of the women’s movement” (4)—and explores changes in her thinking over time. It also examines her as a political actor and looks at her work both on successful feminist campaigns (such as those for married women’s right to own property and for suffrage) and on unsuccessful ones (she cared deeply about the issue of marital rape but was not successful at politicizing it) (111, 116). Wright states that one “important aspect of this study” is the “detailed retrieval of organisations” (16), at which she certainly succeeds. While many of the organizations Wolstenholme Elmy led or participated in are familiar to historians of feminism, others, including the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights, the Committee for Amending the Law in Points Wherein It Is Injurious to Women, the Women’s Emancipation Union, and the Women’s Franchise League (not to be confused with the better-known Women’s Freedom League), are not.
Wright’s detailed narrative—of correspondences; of the passage of legislation; of the formation, splintering, and dissolution of organizations and networks and friendships—has much to recommend it. While the detail can sometimes be overwhelming—“the minutiae of individual feminist campaigns” (236) are not always compelling—she does an excellent job of weaving together the respective politics of feminist pressure groups and Parliament, and of demonstrating how aware actors on one side were of those on the other. The book adds much to our existing narrative and is to be commended.
Wright may have too much respect and affection for her subject. She describes Wolstenholme Elmy as possessing “an almost excessive reserve of impeccable judgment” (58) and “peerless organizational skills” (188); insists that she was “at the heart of every new initiative” (58); holds that in 1895 she “refashioned the discourse surrounding female bodily autonomy” [End Page 203] (164); and claims that one of her 1903 speeches “helped break new ground in suffrage activism” (186). In her conclusion, she directs her readers to a portrait of Wolstenholme Elmy and exhorts us to notice “the fathomless wisdom of her dark, sensitive eyes” (236), which, frankly, is slightly alarming.
While Wright seeks to correct Wolstenholme Elmy’s absence in the historiography, she does not attempt to explain it. Yet she presents a wealth of evidence that speaks to this central issue by making clear that Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was an exceptionally difficult person, whose attraction to conflict hindered her political effectiveness. (This is why Wright is less than successful at her third aim, of proving that Wolstenholme Elmy’s “radicalism [w]as a force for change” .)
At the start of the feminist movement, the women of Langham Place did not enjoy...