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Heroines of Freethought

Humanists UK was formed in 1896 as the Union of Ethical Societies, bringing together the North, South, East, and West London groups. One of its aims was to support local societies and, at the peak of such provision, there were over 40 individual societies across the UK, which emphasised living well without reference to supernatural punishment or reward and brought people together on that basis for the purposes of community and social action. The Union and its affiliated groups drew on a much longer tradition of freethinking people with social reform in mind. Strikingly, this was a tradition full of women, many of whom have been largely forgotten by history.

The brutal criticism faced by many early female freethinkers often focused on their sex, with atheism and the rejection of traditional religious values giving rise to particular horror when expressed by women. In later years, the humanism of many women has often simply been left out of their biographies (where they have had biographies at all), even though these values underpinned lives and work focused on applying compassion, reason, and a sense of social responsibility to the betterment of society.

‘Heroines of Freethought’

Sara A. Underwood, illustration from the Cincinnati Graphic News, 1887

‘Heroines of Freethought’ was the title of an 1876 work by Sara Underwood that celebrated the lives of humanist women who lived and worked before the emergence of humanist organisations such as the ethical societies. Mary Wollstonecraft (1757-1759) and Frances Wright (1795-1852) combined feminism and freethought in writing and lecturing for social reform. Followers of Robert Owen, who lectured widely in the name of socialism and secularism, numbered among them Margaret Chappellsmith (1806-1883), Ernestine Rose (1810-1892), and Emma Martin (1812-1851) –  all of whom drew particular ire as outspoken and ‘godless’ women.

The wave of blasphemy prosecutions in the first half of the 19th century, which famously targeted men like Richard Carlile and George Jacob Holyoake, also saw Matilda Roalfe, Susannah Wright, and Jane and Mary Ann Carlile prosecuted and imprisoned. Eliza Sharples, who became Carlile’s common law wife and took in a young Charles Bradlaugh, also believed passionately in the freedom of speech and belief, enduring poverty and hardship in their pursuit. Later, women like writer, war correspondent, suffragist, and traveller Lady Florence Dixie, further threw off the constraints of Victorian society to advance rational and empathetic reforms in everything from modes of dress to bloodsports. All of these radical freethinkers paved the way for humanist women to come.

Women in the Ethical Societies

Anna Swanwick, one of the earliest speakers for the London Ethical Society. Frontispiece to Anna Swanwick: a Memoir and Recollections by Mary L. Bruce (1903)

The UK’s first ethical society was formed in 1886 as the London Ethical Society, which aimed to formulate ‘a rational conception of human good,’ and to change society for the better. Its first lecture series, delivered at Toynbee Hall, featured mathematician and educator Sophie Bryant, and writer and feminist Anna Swanwick. Social theorist and reformer Helen Bosanquet was also an early speaker and active member. Sophie Bryant served on the society’s executive committee, and was a driving force in its becoming the School of Ethics and Philosophy in 1897. Another key figure in the LES was Derry-born Mary Gilliland Husband, an indefatigable speaker and writer for the ethical societies, whose ‘unfailing energy, sympathy, and tactful influence’ was praised – and its loss mourned – on her retirement in 1895.

Subscribers to the Cambridge Ethical Society, founded in 1888, included academic and agnostic Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, historian Alice Gardner, and pioneering Welsh teacher Elizabeth Phillips Hughes, who was the first woman at the University of Cambridge to achieve first class honours in Moral Sciences (many decades before women could officially obtain degrees). The East London Ethical Society, founded the following year in 1889, had for its aim ‘the development of good character and the promotion of right conduct on a purely human basis’. An early lecturer there was the civil servant Clara Collet, a lifelong promoter of women’s rights.

Ellen Dana Conway by Arthur Hughes, 1873. Conway Hall Humanist Library and Archives

The West London Ethical Society is most often associated with its longtime leader Stanton Coit, but a major figure in its 1892 formation and ongoing operation was Ruth Homan. Homan was an educationist, women’s welfare campaigner, and active participant in numerous societies devoted to education, women’s rights, and the welfare of the poor. Similarly significant in the long life of the society, which later rebranded as the ‘Ethical Church’, was Adela Coit, whose financial support enabled the leasing of the Bayswater building in 1909. Adela Coit was a prominent suffragist, active in the British and international suffrage movement, as well as in the life of the ethical societies. At her funeral service in 1932, Harry Snell recalled her as ‘a quiet, almost unseen, yet potent influence’, who ‘helped both to create and to sustain in others the spirit of virtue and loyalty.’

This ‘almost unseen’ but deeply felt influence recalls descriptions of Ellen Dana Conway, from whom it was said that ‘much of the best work at South Place originated’. Like her husband, Moncure Conway, who led South Place (now Conway Hall) ever closer to humanism, Ellen Dana Conway was an abolitionist and freethinker. At her death in 1897 her husband noted that ‘her beautiful life, her truth, her unwearied charities, proceeded from her own heart. They were not inspired by any thought of reward on earth or in heaven.’

Formed in the same year as the West London Ethical Society, the South London group spoke proudly of its ‘democratic sociability’. Two leading women in the society, who helped to shape its distinctive and enduringly popular character, were Florence Aspasia Law and Nellie Slous Freeman. Law was the society’s inaugural secretary, and the daughter of famed secularist speaker Harriet Law. Freeman, ‘a gentle school teacher from a free-thinking family’ and subsequent secretary of the society, was also secretary of the council of the Union of Ethical Societies for two decades, and described as being ‘devoted to [her] very last days to the work of the Movement’. Nellie Freeman gave her time to the Young People’s Group of the Ethical Movement, the Women’s Group, and the Secular Education League. She also helped to found her local branch of the Women’s Liberal Federation being, like many women in the ethical societies, actively interested in progressive social reform.

Humanists UK’s founding women

The Union of Ethical Societies was shaped and sustained by women as well as men, a fact that has often gone unremarked or underappreciated. These women were typically activists in multiple areas of social reform, and pioneers in many fields of work, motivated by long-held and deeply felt humanist values.

May Seaton-Tiedeman in Hyde Park, London, pictured in Reynolds News, 12 July 1936

The first annual congress of the Union of Ethical Societies took place on 5 July 1896, under the presidency of Mrs. Elizabeth Schwann (later Swann). Nellie Freeman, Bessie Mabbs, and May Seaton-Tiedeman were some of her successors. The Union’s inaugural Honorary Secretary (the equivalent of today’s Chief Executive) was feminist writer Zona Vallance, followed in 1900 by Florence Winterbottom, and later by Nellie Freeman. The official role of President was created in 1919, and from 1941, until her death the following year, it was held by philosopher L. Susan Stebbing.

Elizabeth Schwann was a lifelong champion of progressive causes, and a passionate advocate of women’s suffrage, trade unionism, Irish home rule, and humane social reform. Along with her husband, Liberal MP Charles Schwann, she was an early and active ethical society member.

Bessie Mabbs was a governess, teacher, and school principal, as well as extremely active in the social and intellectual life of the ethical societies. She was chair of the Executive Committee of the Union of Ethical Societies, and active in the Women’s Group.

May Seaton-Tiedeman was a tireless campaigner for changes to divorce laws. As honorary secretary of the Divorce Law Reform Union, she was motivated by long-held humanist values to address what she felt were grave injustices in the existing system. She was also involved in the Society for the Abolition of Blasphemy Laws, as well as being a longtime member of the Union of Ethical Societies and its executive committee.

Zona Vallance, who died in 1904 aged just 44, was a writer, lecturer, and organiser for the Ethical movement: the first honorary secretary of not only the Union of Ethical Societies, but also for the Moral Instruction League, which advocated for non-theological moral education in schools. She was a feminist and a socialist, who argued that ‘the very Hall-mark of Humanity is to sit in judgement upon the possible’.

Florence Winterbottom was an active part of the Ethical Movement for over forty years, as well as a close friend and correspondent of Gandhi, who described her as being ‘among the rare men and women who find service its own reward’. Winterbottom was honorary secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies, and twice chaired its annual congress.

More humanist women: selected members of the Ethical Societies

Clementina Anstruther-Thomson by John Singer Sargent, 1889

West London Ethical Society

Clementina Anstruther-Thomson (1857–1921). Scottish born author and art theorist, who lived with Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) from 1888 for twelve years as “lovers, friends, and co-authors”. The two collaborated on Beauty and Ugliness: and other studies in psychological aesthetics, published in 1912.

Malvina Borchardt (1848-1916). Born in Germany and raised in Manchester, Borchardt was a suffragist and educator who attended Girton College, Cambridge. Along with her sister, also a member of the West London Ethical Society, she founded and ran a school for girls in Finchley from 1890.

Winifred Clara Cullis (1875-1956). Physician, academic, and the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a medical school.

Alice Gruner (1846-1929). Born in Estonia, Alice Gruner was a social worker, lecturer, and major founder of the Women’s University Settlement in Southwark (today the Blackfriars Settlement). For two decades, she was secretary of the Association of University Women Teachers, in which role ‘she helped to raise the status of women teachers, and the standard of education in schools’.

Mabel Hardie (1866-1916). Doctor, surgeon, and suffragette, who worked behind French lines during WW1 when the British Army would not accept female doctors.

Emilie Holyoake-Marsh. National Cooperative Archives (JJD/5/1/53)

Isaline Blew Horner (1896-1981). An Indologist and leading scholar of Pali literature, Horner was president of the Pali Text Society 1859-1981. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1980. Her grandmother, Isaline Marion Blew, was also a member of the West London Ethical Society.

Margaret Rivers Tragett (née Larminie) (1885-1964). A writer and badminton player, who earned 15 caps for England and won 11 titles at the All England Badminton Championships between 1911-1928.

[Elizabeth] Adelaide Manning (1828-1905). Writer, editor, and founding member of the Froebel Society. Manning was one of the first students to attend Girton College, Cambridge. She was also actively involved in the National Indian Association, which championed the education of women in India.

Emilie Holyoake-Marsh (1861-1953). An activist for worker’s rights and women’s suffrage; an advocate of co-operation, and a trade unionist. Like her father, George Jacob Holyoake, Emilie believed in the ‘Piety of usefulness rather than the usefulness of Piety.’

Louisa Martindale (1872-1966). Physician, surgeon, writer, and promoter of medicine as a career for women. Martindale served with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Royaumont Abbey in France in World War I, and as a surgeon in London in World War II.

Hilda Martindale (1875-1952). Author and civil servant, who was a prominent campaigner for the improvement of working conditions, particularly those of women.

Beatrice Sanders (front) at a WSPU tea party, 1908. LSE Library

Amy Constance Morant (1864-1918). Amy Morant was an activist and writer, an organiser for the Women’s Liberal Federation and a member of the Independent Labour Party. She was part of the Free Press Defence Committee (alongside Mona Caird, Edward Carpenter, Walter Crane, J. M. Robertson, and George Bernard Shaw), and a friend of William Morris.

Anna Nordgren (1847-1916). Swedish artist Anna Nordgren was a regular attendee at the West London Ethical Society, to which she gifted a painting, which hung in the Ethical Church, Bayswater. While in London, she shared a studio with Canadian born artist Sophie T. Pemberton, who was also a member of the West London Ethical Society.

Louise Jopling Rowe (1843-1933). Manchester-born painter Louise Jopling Rowe was one of the most prominent female artists of her generation, an active supporter of women’s suffrage, and a vice-president of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, which advocated rational dress reform.

Beatrice Helen Sanders (1874-1932). Beatrice Sanders was the financial secretary of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and a close colleague of Sylvia Pankhurst. She and her husband, Labour MP William Sanders, were members of the West London Ethical Society for over three decades.

Nina Spiller (née Barboza) (1878-1967). Born in France, Nina Spiller married leading Ethical movement figure Gustav Spiller, and was involved in the humanist movement to the end of her life. She was active in the international women’s movement, particularly as part of the International Alliance of Women, for which she was treasurer 1939-1949.

Janie Terrero (née Beddall) (1858-1944). Janie Terrero was a suffragette, who was imprisoned and force-fed in the course of her suffrage activism. Her husband, Manuel Terrero, was a fellow WLES member, as well as a member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.

Emily Josephine Troup (1853-1913). Composer and regular contributor to the musical offering of the South Place Ethical Society, who compiled the secular songbook Hymns of Modern Thought in 1900.

Beatrice McCabe on a postcard created by the Women’s Freedom League

Hampstead Ethical Institute

Frances Hardcastle (1866-1941). Mathematician and graduate of Girton College, Cambridge. Hardcastle was one of the founders of the American Mathematical Society.

Amy Maud Hicks (1877–1953). A devoted suffragist and founding member of the Women’s Freedom League, an organisation in which many freethinking women’s rights activists (and ethical society members) were involved.

Beatrice McCabe (1880-1962). Suffragist and member of the Women’s Freedom League, whose ‘defaced’ 1911 census (part of a WFL campaign), listed every member of her household, including pets, whose marital status and places of origin are also carefully noted.

Frida Mond (1847–1923). A German-born patron of the arts, who gave significant bequests to the British Academy and King’s College London, including to establish lecture series on poetry and literature.

Isabel Grinton Smith (1856-1920). The first woman to be employed as a higher level civil servant in the London County Council, on two thirds of the salary of her male counterparts. Smith was an ‘Infant Protection Visitor’, and a member of the Hampstead Ethical Institute committee.

See also: The forgotten women of humanist history | New Humanist

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