This book studies a distinctive brand of women's rights that emerged out of the Victorian Secularist movement, and looks at the lives and work of a number of female activists, whose renunciation of religion shaped their struggle for emancipation. Anti-religious or secular ideas were fundamental to the development of feminist thought, but have, until now, been almost entirely passed over in the historiography of the Victorian and Edwardian women's movement. In uncovering an important tradition of freethinking feminism, the book reveals an ongoing radical and free love current connecting Owenite feminism with the more ‘respectable’ post-1850 women's movement and the ‘New Women’ of the early twentieth century.
This chapter examines the journeys of the women in studies from Christianity into the organised Freethought movement and examines their attempts to carve out a ‘public’ role as prominent lecturers, journalists and authors. It positions the struggle of Freethinking feminists to access male-dominated intellectual and religious domains in relation to wider attempts by women to intervene in the public sphere. The chapter argues that the Freethinking emphasis on freedom of discussion opened the way for women to participate in conversations on science and reason while simultaneously marginalising the ‘feminine’ from this discourse.
This chapter examines the tensions surrounding the place of ‘woman’ in Freethought ideology. It discusses ‘infidel feminism’ and Freethought support for woman's rights alongside its more problematic definitions of ‘woman’ and her relationship to religion. At stake in these debates were fundamental questions about the compatibility of religion with women's rights, the possibility of re-interpreting ancient texts according to ‘modern’ values, the impact of the rise of science and rationalism on the role of women, and from what authority feminists derived their claims for equality.
This chapter examines the contributions of Freethinking feminists to the women's rights movement and how they negotiated its predominantly Christian culture. The Freethinking emphasis on the sanctity of individual private judgement and moral autonomy shaped attitudes towards the social purity campaigns that came out of repeal work, deterring some Secularists from endorsing the more repressive aspects of this movement. Remaining true to a longstanding, ultra-democratic tradition, Freethinking feminists tended to cohere around the radical fringes of the new suffrage organisations emerging in the early 1900s. The legacy of their commitment to female enfranchisement was evident across the twentieth-century suffrage movement.
This chapter discusses the influence of Freethought in the development of first-wave feminism, focusing on debates over marriage, birth control and sexual morality. It examines the tensions between feminism, Free Love and Freethought while showing that, despite these tensions, Freethought provided an intellectual framework in which it was possible to envisage a more radical transformation of heterosexual relations than the rest of the women's movement was willing to imagine. The Freethought renunciation of Christianity necessarily entailed a rejection of the moral authority of the Church, particularly its role in legitimising sexual relations. Secularists were therefore required to find a new basis for morality.
This chapter notes that first-wave feminism involved a fierce battle of ideas over religion, a battle which was itself crucial in the creation of modern understandings of religion and secularisation. It suggests that Freethought was a significant current in the women's movement, existing alongside and in competition with the Christian values which dominated it. The Woman Question became a key ground upon which Christians clashed with Secularists over which belief system offered most to women. The stories of the Freethinking feminists traced a distinctive and continuous tradition of Freethinking feminism from the 1830s through to the First World War. The chapter concludes that the Secularist rejection of God-given gender roles and Christian-influenced ideas about marriage, birth control and sexual morality enabled alternative visions of relations between the sexes.
This chapter introduces the issue of women's rights in relation to the creation of modern definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when feminists and anti-feminists, Christians and Freethinkers battled over who had women's best interests at heart. These debates were fundamental to the development of feminist thought in England, but have been almost entirely passed over in the historiography of the women's movement. The study treats the subjects not simply as ideologues of infidel feminism but as activists within a movement, whose ideas emerged out of the messy reality of public meetings, arguments, encounters with the enemy and attempts to carve out a space for themselves in a male-dominated world.
This chapter introduces the women who form the subject of this study – tracing their class and denominational backgrounds, examining their lives in the context of wider female involvement in the Secularist movement, and identifying areas of continuity and change in the role of ‘Freethinking feminists’ between 1830 and 1914. Leading female Freethinkers were on the whole from the upper-working and lower-middle class, and for them, a commitment to Freethought often entailed financial insecurity. They were united in their firm rejection of all forms of orthodox religion, especially Christianity.
Freethinking feminists and the renunciation of religion
This chapter examines the ‘counter-conversions’ of women from religion to Freethought. It uses their personal narratives to ask wider questions about the relationship between Christianity and the Secularist movement, and about how people might understand the religious and irreligious beliefs of women in the past from a feminist perspective. Many renounced religion for a variety of reasons: inaccuracies found in the Bible that prevented them from accepting it as the Word of God; because supernatural dogmas could not be reconciled with modern scientific knowledge; and because they were repulsed by a God who could allow so much suffering to continue among His people. Counter-conversion also generated an entirely new way of looking at and relating to the world.