Remember Harriet Law

Submitted by Anon on 28 June, 2007 - 9:02

By Laura Schwartz

In 1868 Karl Marx wrote a letter to Kugelman announcing the election of Harriet Law to the General Council of the First International. The election of a woman to the otherwise all male International was, in 1868, certainly noteworthy.

In Britain and most of Europe women were still denied any form of parliamentary representation, including the vote, and were also excluded from or marginalized by many radical political movements. In theory, Marx recognised that the struggle for socialism would never succeed unless it included women.

In the same letter he went on to remark that”: “Anybody who knows anything of history knows that the great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included).”

The unpleasant sting in the tail illustrates the inability of some socialist men to join the dots between their professed politics and their personal conduct. Harriet Law was merely one in a long line of socialist feminists to struggle against such attitudes found both in and outside of the left.

Harriet Law was born in Essex in 1831. After her father lost his small farming business he moved his family to the East End of London, where Law began to teach in a Sunday school in order to help support her family. She had been brought up as a Strict Baptist, and remained a pious adherent of this faith until the age of twenty when she attended a Secularist meeting in a dingy back room in Mile End Road.

Although it was not common during this time for women to speak on public platforms, let alone counter a male speakers, Harriet Law stood up and challenged the atheist speaker with Christian arguments.

Over the next few months, in which she debated further with leading Freethinkers, Harriet Law began to reject her former religion in favour of atheism and a commitment to the Secularist movement.

Organised Freethought, or Secularism, had emerged out of the collapse of the Owenite and Chartist movements in Britain in the 1850s. It was a movement of mainly working people who were committed to revealing the corrupt and superstitious nature not only of the Established Church but of all religions. Although Secularism was never comparable in size to its radical predecessors, Owenism and Chartism, or to subsequent socialist or labour movements, it nevertheless occupied a central place in nineteenth-century radical politics, drawing together an Enlightenment tradition of rationalism with a populist plebeian anti-clericalism.

Secularism also fostered an important feminist current, in part because of its connections to the Owenite movement from which it had emerged. During the first half of the nineteenth century the Utopian Socialist Owenite movement developed the first coherent socialist feminist analysis. Women such as Emma Martin, who was Harriet Law’s heroine, condemned the system of private property for turning women into commodities, and sought to do away with the institution of marriage, which they saw as simply another form of prostitution. Instead, they argued, men and women should be joined together in free love unions, childcare and housework should be carried out collectively, and women should play a full role in political life.

Harriet Law continued this tradition of socialist feminism. As a full time Secularist lecturer she toured the country attacking Christianity for the subordinate role ascribed to women in the Bible, in which God had created Eve merely as a plaything for Adam and St Paul had banned women from speaking in the churches.

Harriet Law’s new career as a full time activist and public speaker was not an easy one. Left-wing meetings in the 1860s and 1870s were no more glamorous than they are today. Often they were small, usually taking place in the upstairs rooms of pubs, or (when publicans refused to rent out their premises to dangerous “infidels”) on street corners, where passers by would laugh and heckle. Sometimes hostile audiences would become violent, and on one occasion Harriet Law’s lecture was interrupted by angry Christians, pelting stones at the window of the lecture hall. When she tried to escape she was mobbed by the crowd and struck in the face by a gentleman.

Harriet Law’s transgression of acceptable gender roles and opposition to the oppression of her sex led inevitably to panic among those concerned to keep the fragile gender and class hierarchies in place.

A woman who dared to speak in public to low-class audiences was automatically deemed unrespectable, particularly one who insisted on discussing sex, politics and religion. Harriet Law bravely challenged male clergymen to debate her, and was unperturbed by their jibes that as an uneducated female (especially one so unwomanly as to leave her husband at home caring for her children) her ideas were worth nothing. As a socialist feminist today, I find it somehow heartening to think of how our predecessors often found it as hard as we do to persuade our opponents to openly debate us. Like us, Harriet Law was dismissed as an irrelevance or as a dangerous extremist.

A Mr. Woffendale of the Bible Defence Association, who had been slandering Harriet Law behind her back, refused to discuss his criticisms openly, saying that he “could not debate in the streets with a woman, and especially one of Mrs Law’s class.” Undeterred, Harriet Law warned him that “his cowardice should be known as far as her tongue or her pen could reach.”

The more respectable, Christian-influenced, women’s rights movement that emerged during this period also attempted to keep their more militant sisters in the Secularist movement at arm’s length. Another Secularist, Elizabeth Wolstoneholme, was virtually barred from the suffrage campaign that she had done so much to build when she entered into a free love union and became pregnant. Millicent Garret Fawcett led the drive to exclude her, on the grounds that Wolstoneholme’s radical politics and unconventional personal life threatened to damage the women’s movement, which had to appear moderate in order to convince the powers that be to grant them their demands.

But many people did support a more radical, militant, angry kind of feminism. Sometimes thousands would flock to hear Harriet Law inspire them with her vision of an entirely new world in which human beings were no longer divided by religious bigotry, where workers no longer had to spend twelve hours a day producing profits for their bosses, and where men and women might come together as intellectual and political equals.

In 1876 Harriet Law and her daughter began to edit a Secularist newspaper which became a vehicle for their socialism, feminism and atheism. The paper took a strong anti-imperialist line at a time when the British ruling classes were glorying in the expansion of empire. Their opposition to colonialism was motivated by their anti-religious views, and they condemned the way in which Christianity provided a justification for the oppression of subject nations.

Harriet Law also reported on the activities of women in the German Social Democratic Party and called for more women from her own country to combine the struggle for socialism and feminism in the manner of their German sisters.

In 1879 Harriet Law retired from the Secularist movement; perhaps driven out by hostility from its leader Charles Bradlaugh, who was a notorious opponent of socialism; perhaps superseded in her role as foremost female Secularist by the more middle-class, prettier and more ladylike Annie Besant. When Harriet Law demanded that women should have the vote, be granted access to education and employment, and allowed to marry whomever they liked, she was told that she was a utopian, an extremist and a madwoman.

Many of these battles have now been won; others have not. But Harriet Law is certainly worth remembering for anyone who wants to carry on fighting.

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