Agency, Authority and Autonomy – The role of the Anglican Church Congresses in Women’s Activism

8 Mar 2023

several 19th- and 20th-century women equal rights activists

March 8th is International Women’s Day, an annual chance to celebrate the achievements of women. A forthcoming book by two University of Winchester experts in the history of women’s education demonstrates that women working towards a more equitable society has a rich history. Women and the Anglican Church Congress 1861 -1938: Space, Place and Agency by Sue Anderson-Faithful and Catherine Holloway (Bloomsbury) showcases a roll call of women distinguished in education, medicine, philanthropy, politics and the Church. They all have one thing in common: they used the Anglican Church Congress as a platform for activism towards social change.

The Anglican Church Congress

The Anglican Church Congress was instigated in 1861 as a space in which clergy and laymen could work together to promote the established church. The following year, women were admitted as spectators. From then on, despite the resistance of some clerics, they became an integral presence. Congress took place against a context of interdenominational rivalry and social change, addressing topical issues of the day such as poverty, temperance, work, education, ‘race’ and women’s roles. At a time when public speaking was not expected of ‘ladies’, It offered a respectable public space for women’s participation as speakers, as hostesses, as members of the audience and as campaigners for a range of topical issues including suffrage and the ordination of women.

An outlet for spiritual aspirations

In the Congress period, official outlets for women’s spiritual aspirations were limited. Communities of Anglican Sisters were initially regarded with suspicion by those fearful of Roman Catholicism. Women also had to assert their vocational aspirations within the constraints of biblical strictures that resisted women’s spiritual authority - debates that played out at Congress.Overseas missionary work offered a less contested outlet for women seeking religious fulfilment. Their activism influenced Congress agendas - celebrity speakers such as the explorer and missionary Mrs Isabella Bird Bishop, founder of a hospital in Kashmir and the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, helped audiences 'at home' to learn about far-flung corners of the Empire, and the impact of women there.

A training ground for women’s organisations

‘Good’ women were not only to be found in officially designated religious roles. Mary Sumner’s Mothers’ Union and the Mary Townsend’s Girls’ Friendly Society, both official Anglican organisations with leaders close to high-status clergy, made consistent use of the Congress to promote their aims. Drawing on dominant discourses of purity, motherhood, mission and imperial patriotism, both organisations legitimised their own authority and asserted the contribution of women to nation and empire.

The Congress platform drew together women of distinction in philanthropic, political or imperial networks who were affiliated to powerful men in the political field. Speakers exhibit multiple and overlapping affiliations that encompass their diverse positions in relation to politics, imperialism and suffrage. The influential National Union of Women Workers (now National Council of Women), founded by Emily Janes and Congress women Lady Laura Riding and Louise Creighton, owed its organisational structure to experience gained at Congress.

Educational provision and the respectability of theatre

Changes in educational provision for girls and women, including higher education, were represented at Congress by the educational profile of speakers and the presence of education professionals from elite pioneering institutions, notably Elizabeth Wordsworth, first principal of Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall, and Lilian Faithfull of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, as well as schoolgirls and students. Congress speakers also reflected the expansion of women’s horizons, such Mrs Stuart Snell’s advocacy for physical education, and the reassurance of the respectability of theatre given by the actress Dame Sybil Thorndyke.

Welfare work and Politics

Congress reflected the trajectories of women such as eugenicist Ellen Pinsent who moved from organised voluntarism to positions of authority in local welfare administration, politics and service on government commissions. Congress showcased speakers with professional expertise in medicine and health education such as Dr Alice Ravenhill, and experts in employment legislation - notably Gertrude Tuckwell, one of the first women magistrates.

Through the lens of feminist geography and the thinking tools of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Congress is analysed as a space both intimate and public, in which women negotiated agency, authority and autonomy, in short: ‘women’s place’ played out. By mobilising support networks and demonstrating to audiences their expertise in education, the professions, local government and the judiciary, and as loyal supporters of the Church beyond the traditionally assumed women’s sphere, female activists broadened horizons of possibility for women through the Congresses.

History is now

As well as prompting acknowledgement of women’s achievements, International Women’s Day remains an annual reminder that locally and globally, women remain disadvantaged. The situation in Afghanistan under renewed Taliban rule is a particularly stark reminder, with girls being denied an education. A key focus of the book is how women, excluded from power because of their assigned gender, worked together to further their aspirations towards a better society. Women continue to strive for social justice and equality of opportunity. It is a sobering thought that the issues of concern to the women of the Church Congress - poverty, fair working conditions, access to education, healthcare and freedom from violence and sexual exploitation - are still live issues today.

Centre for the History of Women’s Education

This blog also marks two decades of the University’s Centre for the History of Women’s Education, which has fostered collaborative scholarship in women’s and gender histories around educational themes in their broadest sense, through its seminars, mentoring and public outreach. Our new book Women and the Anglican Church Congress is the result of partnerships that came about through our membership of this community of enquiry.

Sue Anderson-Faithful and Catherine Holloway

Faculty of Education and the Arts

Images from Wikimedia Commons

Back to media centre