The Women’s Rights Movement and Evangelicalism

Millicent Fawcett

Women’s long battle for equal rights

It’s here – at last! Millicent Fawcett’s statue was unveiled this week, the first woman to be honoured on Parliament Square, and with her all those who fought the long and hard fight for women to have equal rights, in Britain and beyond.

Millicent Fawcett, Lydia Becker, the Pankhursts were among thousands who campaigned, lobbied, petitioned and persevered to have society acknowledge and enshrine in law that women are not intellectually deficient (a common belief in their days) but as intelligent, capable and worthy as men to have equal rights, own property, raise their children – and have their say in politics.

The battle that finally secured women the vote span over more than a century, but it did not start out with suffrage at all. The origin of the women’s rights movement can be traced back to something we would possibly not expect, namely to the anti-slavery campaign and Evangelicalism of the late 18th century.

Evangelical Christian women are the first to join the public debate

Women like Hannah More, a poet and evangelical Christian, laboured tirelessly alongside William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson from a very early stage. (Interestingly it was a woman, Lady Margaret Middleton, who first encouraged Wilberforce to launch his parliamentary campaign.) Those women were driven by a firm belief that man was created in God’s image, worthy and deserving of being treated with dignity, regardless of race – and that they had a moral obligation to join that fight.

Hannah More used her platform as a poet to raise awareness, writing anti-slavery poems and pamphlets and organising plays in theatres. Through her activism, she pulled down the barrier that had women enclosed and confined to the private sphere of home and family. The anti-slavery campaign made it acceptable for women to engage in the political debate – it was after all for a higher, a Christian cause: they raised funds, organised petitions and mobilised supporters; activities later on adopted by the women’s suffrage movement.

Josephine Butler, a clergyman’s wife, is another pioneer worth mentioning, though much of her work coincided with the early suffragists. She held rallies and gave public speeches on topics very taboo in her time: sexual exploitation of children and the age of consent, as well as the double-standard of the Contagious Diseases Acts which subjected prostitutes to humiliating medical examinations and harsh treatment, while men were left unaffected. Taking up the case for the rights of these so-called “fallen women”, the outcast of her day, and giving a voice to the voiceless, Josephine Butler in Christ-like manner stood up for what she believed in, defying social expectations and conventions.

Who won women the vote?

From the second half of the 19th century more and more women’s rights campaigners rose up and fought for more equality – in property law, family law, access to higher education and profession. It was during that time that the question of women’s suffrage gained momentum and Millicent Fawcett and her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became interested and active.

This also answers the question (at least in part) who won women the vote – the suffragists or the suffragettes? We can only speculate if we would have ever heard of a Millicent Fawcett or an Emmeline Pankhurst, had it not been for women like Hannah More and Josephine Butler, and many others, who first broke out of social norms and paved the way for women to campaign for social and political change.

When you pay your first visit to Millicent Fawcett’s statue on Parliament Square, or next time you hear about women’s suffrage, remember its Christian roots – the belief that we, male and female, were created in God’s image and are of infinite incomprehensible worth.

If you would like to visit the statue of Millicent Fawcett and of other women pioneers, join us on our Inspiring Women tour!