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Biggs, Caroline Ashurstfree

(1840–1889)
  • Jonathan Spain

Caroline Ashurst Biggs (1840–1889)

by Elizabeth S. Guinness, 1897 (after unknown photographer, c. 1875)

The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Biggs, Caroline Ashurst (1840–1889), novelist and campaigner for women's suffrage, was born in St Margaret's, Leicester, on 23 August 1840, the second daughter of Matilda Ashurst Biggs (1816/17–1866) and Joseph Biggs (1809–1895) [see under Biggs, John (1801-1871)], hosiery manufacturer, of Leicester. Under her mother's influence she developed at an early age a strong belief in the political and social emancipation of women. In August 1858 she wrote to Joseph Cowen, secretary of the Northern Reform Union:

I deeply regret that it [the union] limits its desires of obtaining political rights … to men alone, in defiance of its motto ‘Taxation without Representation is Tyranny’ … I do not feel inclined to become a member of any society which … is purely selfish in its object, and does not recognise the principle of justice and rights for all mankind.

Joseph Cowen Collection, Tyne and Wear Archives, C137, C146

Another of the causes that Biggs shared with her mother was anti-slavery. In 1862 she published a three-volume novel, White and Black: a Story of the Southern States, which was praised by the Italian republican exile Giuseppe Mazzini, a close friend of the Biggs family.

During the 1860s, probably after her mother's death in 1866, Biggs moved to London, where she joined the small group of middle-class feminists, including Henrietta Taylor and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, that set up the first organized women's suffrage movement. There was a strong family involvement—her aunts Caroline Stansfeld and Emilie Venturi were both active supporters of women's suffrage. She was made assistant secretary of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage (NSWS), alongside Clementia Taylor, in 1867, a post which she held until 1871. In this role 'Her ready pen, methodical work and untiring industry soon proved her an invaluable ally' (Blackburn, 63–4). When the NSWS split into two groups in 1872 she became honorary secretary of its central committee, and she remained a committee member until her death. Following the passage of the 1867 Reform Act she was involved in the campaign in London to place women with property qualifications on the electoral register. After the negative decision of the court of common pleas in 1868 (Chorlton <i>v.</i> Lings) her attention focused on public campaigns and petitions in support of the annual parliamentary bill sponsored by Jacob Bright. Each year she was heavily engaged in public speaking tours, speaking on twenty-three occasions in south Wales during 1873.

The mid-Victorian campaign for women's suffrage was overtly constitutional and non-militant. The exclusion of married women from the initial campaign aims became a perennial source of contention within the movement, not least for Biggs's married aunts. The related question of the legal status of women in marriage was the background to her second novel, Waiting for Tidings (1874). In 1879 she published a short pamphlet, Ought Women to have the Right to Vote for Members of Parliament. This was followed in 1889 with A Letter from an Englishwoman to Englishwomen (published by the central committee of the NSWS) in which she emphasized the fact that the role of women was expanding within political parties, yet 'while competent to instruct voters in their duties, they are pronounced incompetent to give a vote themselves'.

Biggs opposed allowing the new women's sections of the political parties to affiliate to the NSWS, as was debated in 1888. She was one of a small group, mainly from the older generation of feminists—including Millicent Fawcett, Lydia Becker, and Helen Blackburn—that broke away to form a new central committee of the NSWS. Biggs's views on political affiliation prevailed after her death, when the various wings of the movement were consolidated under the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1897.

Biggs was also keen to promote the work of women in local government (opened up to women by the Municipal Franchise Act of 1869), both in her position as editor (1870–89) of the Englishwoman's Review and as committee member of the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as Poor Law Guardians. In 1887 the society reprinted one of her editorial articles, 'Women as poor law guardians', in which she called on women of property in London to stand for election. That year also saw the publication of the third volume of the monumental History of Woman Suffrage, edited by the American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Biggs was author of the chapter on Great Britain, and took the opportunity to pay homage to the earlier generation of English feminists, including her mother. Early in 1889 she added her signature to a statement of protest against the candidacy, as alderman on the London county council, of Sir Charles Dilke, who had been involved in a celebrated divorce case. As with many Liberal suffragists there was a strong moral basis to her feminism.

Biggs died, unmarried, at her home, 19 Notting Hill Square, London, on 4 September 1889. In 1893 her friend and colleague Helen Blackburn included her portrait in an exhibition of eminent British women in Chicago.

Sources

  • H. Blackburn, Women's suffrage: a record of the women's suffrage movement in the British Isles (1902)
  • P. Levine, Victorian feminism, 1850–1900 (1987)
  • J. Rendall, ed., Equal or different: women's politics, 1800–1914 (1987)
  • S. Oldfield, Collective biography of women in Britain, 1550–1900: a select annotated bibliography (1999)
  • Mazzini's letters to an English family, ed. E. F. Richards, 3 vols. (1920–22)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Joseph Cowen, C137, C146

Likenesses

  • portrait, exh. 1893; women's hall, University of Bristol, 1894; now lost
  • E. S. Guinness, portrait, 1897 (after unknown photographer, 1875), Girton Cam. [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£1642: administration, 7 Oct 1889, CGPLA Eng. & Wales