“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” Gloria Steinem
The struggle for women’s equality is part of the story of campaigns for justice and equality integral to Birmingham’s past and present. In the eighteenth century women had been discouraged in some quarters from taking part in public campaigns for the end to slavery because women’s place in society was seen as incompatible with public debate and campaign. It was also because many women believed the men’s campaign to end the slave trade did not go far enough. Activists such as Elizabeth Heyrick and Birmingham-based Lucy Townsend believed in the complete abolition of slavery. By the 1820’s, dissatisfied with the slow progress made by other campaigns, Lucy Townsend and her friend Mary Lloyd established the ” Female Society for Birmingham, West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Walsall, and their Respective Neighbourhoods, for the Relief of British Negro Slaves”. It was the first women’s society of its kind established in 1825 to raise awareness and funds for the fight against the injustices of slavery.
Raising awareness was done in a number of different ways including the promotion of life stories of those who had suffered enslavement, such as “Scenes in The Life of Harriet Tubman”. Harriet Tubman became one of the best known fighters against slavery, having herself escaped enslavement in the American South, assisted on the so-called Underground Railroad and also fought in the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass, an anti-slavery campaigner who attended a meeting of Birmingham’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1846, wrote of Tubman: “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown … I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.” In later life this remarkable woman campaigned for women’s suffrage. An edition of Harriet Tubman’s story is currently on display in the Library of Culture’s exhibition, in the Library of Birmingham, alongside another biography written by Mary Prince. This tells of her long struggle for freedom. Prince’s story was the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in the United Kingdom. The Female Society for the Relief of British Negro Slaves actively supported Mary Prince in her individual campaign for emancipation. Correspondence between Lucy Townsend and Mrs Pringle, wife of anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Pringle and employer of Mary Prince, survives in our collections. It contains corroboration of Mary Prince’s story, reflecting the distrust that existed of these accounts of enslavement, also found with the widespread disbelief on the publication of other narratives such as that of Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup in his account “Twelve Years A Slave”.
“… the whole of the back part of her body is distinctly scarred, and as it were, checked with the vestiges of severe floggings. Mary herself affirms that all these scars were occasioned by the various cruel punishments she has mentioned or referred to in her narrative; and of the entire truth of this statement I have no hesitation in declaring myself perfectly satisfied.”
(Copy of letter 28th March 1831 from MS 3173 Records of the Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves)
The realities and full horrors of slavery were not faced by white campaigners who saw Mary Prince as a woman to be helped rather than an equal campaigner. Her evidence given to the courts in support of the case was partially suppressed to allow an image of her to be constructed and manipulated by campaigners. The road to equality and freedom from discrimination was to be a long one. And as the Oscar-winning director of the film “Twelve Years a Slave” Steve McQueen reminded us, over 20 million people in the world today still live in slavery.
International Women’s Day is on 8th March and supports the continuing struggle for freedom and equality.
Clare Midgeley – Women Against Slavery: the British Campaigns 1780-1870 (1992 ref A 326.082 MID)