The Stockport October meeting was an AGM followed by Robin
Grinter speaking on ‘Three Humanist Heroines: Mary Wollstonecraft, Annie Besant and Marie Stopes’. Whilst we hear a lot about Humanist men, but not
enough about Humanist women. These three were selected because they were outspoken and combatant campaigners for radical changes to promote human rights, especially for women.
Mary Wollstonecraft had a short life, dying in 1797 after childbirth at the age of 38. She had a hard upbringing, leaving home at 19, founding a Dissenting school to promote justice and equality which collapsed, then becoming a governess in Ireland ill-treated by a dominating aristocratic employer.
Her achievements included a brief history of the French Revolution and an open letter to Edmund Burke, entitled ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’. She condemned both aristocratic and monarchical government, supported the French Revolutionaries and advocated a republic. She argued for an equal society based on reason, justice and the idea of progress, not tradition and custom, a year before Thomas Paine wrote ‘The Rights of Man’ .
In 1792, Mary published her second revolutionary public letter ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, which went far beyond Paine in demanding full human rights for all, not just for men. Her book attacked the assumption prevalent at the time that women were inferior to men: she said they only appeared inferior because they were denied education. Her revolutionary thinking was set in a reasonably conventional social context. While she argued strongly for the right for women to have careers, she saw their role primarily as loyal wives and good mothers and accepted the social and class structure of her day.
Annie Besant, born in 1847, was brought up in the Church of England, and married a clergyman. However she lost her faith and became increasingly atheist. When she refused to take Holy Communion her husband divorced her. She joined the National Secular Society (set up by Charles Bradlaugh in 1866) and edited its journal ‘the National Reformer’. She lived with Bradlaugh and they worked closely together. Annie became a powerful orator, speaking on freedom of thought, secularism, workers’ rights, birth control and women’s rights.
In 1877 she and Bradlaugh published an American book advocating birth control by contraception. This enraged the Church and Annie and Bradlaugh were taken to court. Though the case was dropped she lost custody of her daughter. In her Autobiography she said ‘I exposed the history of the Catholic Church with unsparing hatred, its persecutions, its religious wars, its cruelties and its oppressions….no philosophy, no religion has brought so glad a message to the world as this good news of Atheism.’
With radical views she joined the Fabian Movement and later on the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, leading to a break with the more right wing Bradlaugh. Annie became a union organiser, speaking at the Bloody Sunday protest meeting of the unemployed in 1887 and organising the union of the London Dockers. But her main achievement was her work in 1888 for the welfare of women working in the Bryant and May match factory in London leading to Union recognition, raised wages and improved conditions.
Annie also fought successfully for improvements in the education of poor children in London pledging to work for ‘No more hungry children’. She devoted her formidable energies to organising free meals and free medical examinations to bring this about.
Annie also spoke on behalf of women’s right to vote at meetings of the Suffragette Movement.
Marie Stopes, a paleobiologist lecturing at University College, London and Manchester University, was a brave campaigner for women’s rights and a pioneer in Britain of birth control. She set up a network of clinics, and various societies to organise and campaign for birth control. These societies became the Family Planning Association in 1931. The Marie Stopes International Global Partnership is now active in 38 countries.
Her two books, ‘Married Love ’and ‘Wise Parenthood’, both published in 1918, gave women sexually explicit advice about methods of birth control. She also edited a magazine ‘Birth Control News’. When the Protestant and Catholic Churches called for her prosecution she held protest meetings outside Churches!
Marie believed birth control should only be practised within marriage, but she campaigned for the rights of married women teachers and for separate taxation of husbands and wives. However, she also believed in ‘Eugenics’ and argued for the ‘sterilisation of those totally unfit for parenthood – the insane, the feeble-minded and half-castes.
Robin concluded by considering the credentials as Humanists of Annie Besant and Marie Stopes. Annie Besant lost her faith while married to a clergyman, gained a divorce and campaigned as an atheist. Towards the end of her life she developed an interest in theosophy, not a theistic stance, but certainly a spiritualist one with supernatural overtones. Marie Stopes never dabbled in the divine, but she did become a proponent of eugenics at odds with the fundamental Humanist belief in the equal potential value of every human being.
Other influential women include Harriet Taylor, the wife and co-worker of John Stuart Mill; the novelist, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot); Simone de Beauvoir; and Germaine Greer.
Isaac Newton remarked and Stephen Hawking has observed ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’ who have made these changes possible. Let us add ‘and giantesses’, or ‘Humanist Heroines’.