‘Developing our own gifts and those of others’: the educational role of the Warwickshire North Women’s Conferences, 1895-1960

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Among the large collection of records of Central England Quakers are the minutes of the Warwickshire North Women’s Monthly Meeting beginning in 1729. They provide a fascinating insight into the mental and emotional worlds of Quaker women in Birmingham over several generations, and illustrate the concerns that were foremost in their minds.

The nature of the Women’s meetings and the records that relate to them changed in the late nineteenth century. In May 1889, a proposal from the men’s monthly meeting was put to the women, suggesting that they should hold joint monthly meetings in advance of their separate meetings. Women Friends agreed to trial this for twelve months. In October 1890, as most business was now done in the joint meeting they decided to hold women’s meetings four times a year, rather than monthly, and the role of the meeting changed. From 1897 three women’s Monthly Meeting ‘Conferences’ were held each year – in the spring to prepare for Yearly Meeting, in the summer to review and read papers from Yearly Meeting, and in November ‘to consider some General subject of interest to women’. In this piece I will be concentrating on this last conference in the period from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Notice of a Conference on 'The Child's Point of View', 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

Notice of a conference on ‘The Child’s Point of View’, 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

The subjects deemed to be of interest by the women ranged widely, from theological questions, women’s ministry and Quaker history, to the social and political issues of the day. Women Friends presented papers followed by a discussion, and external speakers were occasionally invited to present on particular subjects. The Conferences were well attended, and could attract anything from 50 to 150 women depending on the popularity of the theme. Many of the subjects, particularly in the early years, are those that we might consider to be traditional women’s subjects and we see the Conference functioning as a space of formal and informal education in very practical knowledge that was relevant to middle class wives and mothers.

There is a considerable interest, for example, in motherhood and the upbringing of children and in particular how children and young people should be nurtured in Quaker ways and beliefs. On 12 February 1895 when 70 women were present, the session focused on ‘Woman’s influence over Children and Young People in the Home’. Catharine Wilson spoke of the influence of Christian nurses and governesses working with the mother for the good of the children, a reflection of the class and socio-economic circumstances of many of the more prominent women in the meeting. Caroline Gibbins read ‘a valuable paper’ on the ‘Discipline of Younger Children’ which emphasised ‘moral suasion’ rather than ‘physical force’ and the wise mother’s role in avoiding conflict.

The People's Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

The People’s Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

They also kept up to date with new developments in child psychology and the medical care of children. On 16th June 1908, the charismatic Canadian Sunday school reformer and principal of Westhill training college George Hamilton Archibald gave an address on ‘The Child’s Point of View’.[1]  Westhill, although not officially a Quaker college like Woodbrooke, was founded by Quakers and among the founding group were leading members of the women’s meeting Theodora Mary Wilson and Geraldine Southall Cadbury. Archibald spoke about how the child feels it has rights, and how these must be respected. Some of the meeting‘s members were very interested in progressive education, Theodora Mary Wilson, for example, later became a follower of Rudolph Steiner, and members of the meeting had been among the supporters of the first Peoples’ Free Kindergarten in Birmingham, a kindergarten aimed at the working classes established in 1904 by Julia Lloyd. On 9th November 1909, meeting member Dr. Mary Darby Sturge spoke on ‘Some needs of Child Life’ –  sleep, ‘suitable’ food, ‘careful moral training’ by the mother, and ‘time to play – a time of absolute relaxation’.

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Notice of a conference on ‘Some of the Needs of Child-Life’, 1909 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/9), and image of Dr. Mary Darby Sturge (Birmingham Portraits Collection)

As well as educating themselves they felt a moral responsibility to less privileged working class women. On 7th April 1903 Margaret Littleboy presented a paper on ‘What are our ideals in holding Mothers Meetings?’ In the following discussion Marian Priestman, a penal reformer who together with Geraldine Cadbury would become one of the first two women magistrates in the city in 1920 following the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, pointed out that, ‘Our ideals are very high no less that changing the women’s lives and through them their homes, their husbands and their children.’[2] The meeting considered the vexed question of how their Mothers Meetings could be attractive to young working class mothers whilst also introducing ‘indirect’ teaching on temperance, child health, morality, thrift and the dangers of relying on credit rather than ready money.

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Notices of conferences on ‘What are our ideals in holding Mothers’ Meetings?’, 1903 and ‘Our Responsibilities on the Temperance question – specially as it relates to Women and Girls, 1907 (SF/2/1/1/2/1/8)

There is a constant emphasis on the role Quaker women should play in social issues and the need to study social subjects such as poverty and its causes, with a particular interest in temperance.  We also see discussion of new movements or discourses that emerge at particular times and the meeting operated as a safe space in which the women could discuss and debate what were at the time controversial subjects. In April 1919 Catherine Osler, non-Quaker and local suffrage leader, addressed the meeting on ‘social purity’ and its relation to women’s citizenship following the granting of limited women’s suffrage in 1918. She spoke of the need to continue the work of the social reformer Josephine Butler, and for increased awareness of venereal disease as one of the evil consequences of war.[3] On 10th March 1931 Constance Crosland of Manchester presented a paper on current issues in social work and spoke of the need for birth control.[4]

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Notice of a conference on ‘Women’s place in the Christian Church’, 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

As well as women’s role in broader society several meetings explored women’s status in the ministry and governance of the Religious Society of Friends, reflecting broader discussions around this issue in the Society in this period. The women drew on the history of Quaker women’s spiritual leadership to legitimate their own claim for authority.  On the 10th March 1908 Helen B. Harris of Woodbrooke, and wife of the Quaker scholar Rendel Harris, spoke on ‘Women’s Place in the Christian Church’ in which she discussed women’s status in the early Christian church and developments over the centuries. Following the reformation she argued, there was a great revival and as with every subsequent revival ‘there is a corresponding tendency for woman to come forward and to take her right place.’ She concluded ‘How thankful ought we to be for the insight of George Fox and the early Friends who recognized the principle of the equality of men and women in spiritual things.’

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Notice of a conference on ‘Some Recollections of the part Friends took in the Anti-Slavery Struggle, 1905 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/8)

They also drew on Quaker women’s history of involvement in humanitarian and political concerns, particularly the anti-slavery cause. Many of them had mothers, grandmothers and aunts who had participated in the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. Founded in 1825 the Birmingham Society was, as Clare Midgley has written, ‘the first, the largest, the most influential and the longest lasting’ of the women’s anti-slavery associations.[5] On 14 November 1905, for example, Rachel Anna Albright King, presented a paper entitled ‘Some recollections of the part Friends took in the Anti-Slavery Struggle’.[6]  In her paper she recalled shopping as a child with her mother (Rachel Stacey, daughter of George Stacey of Tottenham and his wife Deborah Lloyd) ‘when great pains were taken to get print dresses & sugar which were not made by slaves.’ Rachel Anna’s recollections were complemented by Sara Wilson Sturge’s account of her mother Mary Lloyd’s role in the initial founding of the Ladies Society. Sara was the mother of Dr. Mary and Evelyn Sturge who were active members of the meeting. Maria Joel Cadbury then connected the past to the present in her contribution on contemporary slavery in the Congo and the work that remained to be done.

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Notice of a conference on ‘The Story of the Women’s Congress at the Hague’, 1915 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

Missionary work, humanitarian causes, and peace are constant themes from the 1890s through to the 1950s. In March 1898 Ellen Robinson of Liverpool addresses the meeting on ‘Women and War’, and there are several discussions of issues such as Armenia and the control of the Opium trade. During the First World War we see peace come to the fore. Several members were active supporters of peace campaigns including the controversial Women’s International Peace Congress at The Hague. Catharine Albright, Geraldine Cadbury, Sophia Sturge, and Mary Snowden Braithwaite and Ethel C. Wilson both of Woodbrooke, were members of the national British Committee of the Women’s International Congress, and a local committee was formed in Birmingham in early 1915.[7] Catharine Albright, Geraldine Cadbury and her daughter Dorothy, Sophia Sturge, and Florence Barrow and her sister in law Ethel (Mrs Harrison Barrow) had all expressed a wish to travel to The Hague but were refused passports.

Notice of a conference on ‘Our Neighbours the Jews’, 1938 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/10)

Practical support for non-combatants and refugees suffering the consequences of war was also a recurring theme. In November 1938 for example Evelyn Sturge, who had worked with Belgian refugees in Holland and in Birmingham during the First World War and was now active with Jewish refugees in the city, gave a paper on ‘Our Neighbours the Jews’ in which she spoke of ‘the terrible wrongs that were being done to millions of innocent people’, and Edith Carter told the meeting of her recent visit to Berlin where she had witnessed ‘terrible cruelty’.

Reading the minutes illuminates how Quaker women responded to the significant changes that took place in the Religious Society of Friends and in broader society and the public roles of middle class women over this period. As a source they enable us to trace the evolution of a fairly traditional maternalist philanthropic discourse into more egalitarian ideas. The meeting provided a space for mutual and collective education for Women Friends, and for mutual support that legitimised their participation in a broad range of civil, social, and political causes, and in the governance and ministry of the Society of Friends.

[1] SF/2/1/1/2/1/9.

[2] SF/2/1/1/2/1/8.

[3] SF/2/1/1/2/1/9.

[4] SF/2/1/1/2/1/9.

[5] Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992).

[6] SF/2/1/1/2/1/8.

[7] Towards Permanent Peace: A Record of the Women’s International Congress held at The Hague, April 28th– May 1st 1915 (London: 1915); WIL First Yearly Report, October 1915-October 1916 p 4, LSE Archives, WILPF 2/1

Sian Roberts

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