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  • The Late-Victorian Feminist Community
  • Jana Smith Elford (bio)

Late-victorian feminism has often been considered a backwater of collective action. The movement has been characterized by scholars as “a fractured collectivity of groups and webs of affiliation marked by disagreement as much as by consensus” (Felski 147), with political action “in a faltering state of suspension” (Beaumont 97). Yet the fact that the feminism of the period represented a “fractured collectivity” does not mean it was politically ineffective. On the contrary, the degree to which late-Victorian feminism constituted a network rather than a singular movement provided unique strengths and opportunities. Feminists of the period—writers, activists, social reformers, and thinkers—petitioned for the improved status of women by advocating egalitarian marriage and comradeship between the sexes, improved working conditions for women, and political and legal enfranchisement. They moved sometimes together and sometimes in parallel, encountering and influencing each other’s ideas through shared connections to particular places, social organizations, and individuals.

Late-Victorian feminism was informed by education advancements of the mid-Victorian period. In Britain, mid-Victorian feminists Emily Davies, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Anne Jemima Clough, and Josephine Butler made considerable advances in the higher education of women, establishing Girton and Newnham Colleges, at Cambridge University, in 1869 and 1871, respectively. Middle- and upper-class women deemed superfluous by British society took advantage of burgeoning opportunities for study and established new egalitarian communities premised on critical thought and well-considered ideas.

Although some are less well-remembered than others, women belonging to the late-Victorian feminist reform community included, among others, Eleanor Marx Aveling (Karl Marx’s daughter and a member of the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, and the Woman’s Trade Union League); Emma Brooke (a founding member of the Fabian Society and author of the 1894 novel A Superfluous Woman); Clementina Black (secretary of the Women’s Trade Union Association, president of the Women’s Industrial Council, and executive committee member of the National Anti-Sweating League); Mona Caird (president of the Anti-Vivisection League, member of the Pioneer Club and the Theosophical Society, and author of the inflammatory 1888 article “Marriage”); Annie Besant (theosophist, socialist, and proponent of birth control); Katharine St. John Conway (Glasier) (theosophist and founding member of the Independent Labour Party); Jane Hume Clapperton (novelist and social theorist); Isabella Ormston Ford (author, speaker, and founding member of the International Labour Party); Henrietta Müller (labour activist, suffragette, anti-war advocate, and contributor to the Westminster Review); Margaret Harkness (author of the socialist-feminist novels [End Page 32] A City Girl [1887], Out of Work [1888], and In Darkest London [1889]); and Olive Schreiner (author of the 1883 novel The Story of An African Farm; the 1890 evocative and widely influential collection of feminist visions, Dreams; and the 1911 Women and Labour). Such women depended on a network of like-minded women and men for support and companionship. In effect, feminist reformers invented new communities of their own—communities that were defined not by marital status but by a mutual desire to transform late-Victorian society.

Not adhering to a single or monolithic feminist agenda, these women were involved in various and multiple overlapping social reform clubs and organizations, some with what we might see today as opposing ideological perspectives. Many of these organizations were located in London but had connections extending well beyond the limits of the metropolis. They included political groups such as the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, the Women’s Liberal Association, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the Women’s Labour League. They also included clubs formed in response to “the woman question,” such as the Men and Women’s Club and the Pioneer Club, as well as spiritual or religion-based associations, such as the Fellowship of the New Life and the Theosophical Society. Late-Victorian feminists were also affiliated with the periodical networks of the day, including the mainstream Westminster Review and Nineteenth Century, socialist periodicals such as the well-known Labour Leader, and the woman-centred Women’s Penny Paper (which later became The Woman’s Herald).

For feminist Emma Brooke...


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