We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Langham Place group (act. 1857–1866) brought together a small number of determined middle-class women to campaign on a variety of fronts for the improvement of the situation of women. In identifying their own needs they also began to define a cautious liberal feminist politics, which in negotiating the tensions of class and gender bequeathed a legacy of moderation and respectability to the next feminist generation. The group took its name from the office of the English Woman's Journal, launched in 1858, and established in December 1859 at 19 Langham Place, London.

The origin of the group lay in the close friendship which developed from the late 1840s between Barbara Leigh Smith [see Bodichon, Barbara Leigh Smith] and Elizabeth Rayner Parkes. Both were born into progressive Unitarian families, at the centre of dissenting and radical opinion and politics. The two young women shared a desire for occupation and activity and a deep frustration at the restraints imposed by social convention. They wrote for local papers and radical periodicals and supported each other, often in emotional terms, as Parkes began to write poetry and Leigh Smith to study art. They became interested in the education of girls and increasingly aware of the existence of prostitution and the responsibilities of philanthropy. They were influenced among others by the older Anna Jameson, though her belief in ‘the communion of labour’ between the complementary but different roles of men and women was more limited than their own approaches to feminist politics.

By 1854 Parkes had published Remarks on the Education of Girls and Leigh Smith A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws of England Concerning Women. In the following year they formed a committee to organize a petition to the House of Commons to reform the laws relating to married women's property. In Edinburgh in 1856, Parkes met Isa Craig [see Knox, Isabella], also a journalist and poet, and with her contributed to a Glasgow women's periodical, the Waverley Journal. In April 1857 Parkes became editor, advertising the paper as ‘a working woman's journal’, and established an office in Princes Street, London. Craig came to London to assist her, but by January 1858 the paper had failed. A month later, the English Woman's Journal was founded by forming a limited liability company, in which Leigh Smith, now married to Eugène Bodichon, was the major shareholder, through her sister Anne's holding (since married women could not own shares). Male shareholders and sympathizers included Samuel Courtauld and Peter Alfred Taylor.

Parkes and Bodichon gathered around them committed and active women, mainly single. Matilda Hays, novelist, translator of George Sand, and companion of the American actress Charlotte Cushman, was a close friend of Parkes, and an original shareholder and co-editor of the journal. In November 1858 Emily Faithfull, a Surrey rector's daughter, described by Parkes as ‘a most hearty young worker … who has brought us a host of subscriptions’, came to work on the journal before she founded the Victoria Press (Parkes to Bodichon, 5 Jan 1859, Parkes papers, 5.86). Maria Rye, also an original shareholder and briefly the secretary of the committee to reform the law on married women's property, was especially interested in finding work for educated middle-class women. So too were Jessie Boucherett, a strong Conservative from a Lincolnshire landed family, who came to join the group in 1859, and the poet Adelaide Procter, who together founded the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women (SPEW) in 1859. Emily Davies, daughter of a Gateshead rector, and sister of the Christian socialist Llewelyn Davies, first encountered the group in late 1859 and for a time worked for the cause in Gateshead; after moving to London in 1862 she acted as editor of the English Woman's Journal in 1863, and worked continuously to improve the status of middle-class women. Sarah Lewin was employed as secretary and bookkeeper. Also very important were the group's wealthy patrons. Helena, comtesse de Noailles (1824?–1908), who had substantially helped Elizabeth Blackwell's medical career, became a major shareholder in February 1859. In December 1859 Theodosia Monson, Lady Monson, a friend of Hays, took for them new and more spacious premises at 19 Langham Place, where a reading room and coffee shop could be provided, associated societies could meet, and initiatives could be developed.

Among these initiatives, Boucherett and Procter ran SPEW and held classes in arithmetic and bookkeeping. Maria Rye set up an office copying legal documents in Lincolns Inn Fields and in 1862, with Bodichon's help, founded the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society. Emily Faithfull trained young working-class women as compositors at the Victoria Press in Great Coram Street. The journal was particularly supportive of the new Ladies Sanitary Association founded by the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (NAPSS) to carry ‘a social and sanitary crusade’ into the homes of the poor (Parkes to Bodichon, 8 Jan 1860, Parkes papers, 5.95). The NAPSS was especially sympathetic to the ideas of the group, some of whom had helped to found it in 1857. And in 1862 Bodichon, Davies, and Craig formed a committee to campaign for women's entry for university examinations, initially in support of Elizabeth Garrett's application to matriculate at London University [see Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett].

Employment was the major theme of the periodical, and associated with it were the need to improve the education of women of all classes and the social responsibilities of middle-class women for working-class women. These concerns raised the issue of the appropriate sexual division of labour between men and women and the extent to which these feminists supported the employment of married women. Questions about class and status were also significant. Women who sought employment seemed too often constrained by notions of gentility and the appropriateness of employment for a ‘lady’. Parkes, as editor of the journal, and SPEW constantly sought to broaden the range of occupations which women of different classes might take up, beyond the overstocked markets for governesses and needlewomen, though for the most part still within a clearly gendered division of labour. Increasingly Parkes herself condemned the work of married women outside the home, though Boucherett and Faithfull argued that ‘every woman should be free to support herself by the use of whatever faculties God has given her’, without obstruction by prejudice or legislation (Faithfull, 70). These liberal feminists recognized a potential conflict with orthodox political economy, often invoked against women's work as depressing the wages of men in free competition. Some, like Boucherett, were prepared to face the consequences of a free market in labour. Parkes and others suggested ways in which association and co-operation among women might moderate the harshness of the free market, though some proposals looked more like philanthropy than co-operation.

Leading contributors to the periodical wrote of the fundamental importance of the education of middle-class girls and the need for an equivalent to boys' grammar schools. Davies in particular wrote of the importance of girls entering for examinations on an equal basis with boys, as an objective measure of achievement. There was a gulf between their expectations of middle-class schools and those for working-class girls, and there was some debate about the extent to which domestic training might be expected in the latter, if not the former. These discussions were related to the philanthropic issues raised in the journal. Many articles offered accounts of mothers' meetings, temperance campaigns, industrial and ragged schools, cottage hospitals and local refuges, and of middle-class women's involvement in and management of these. Above all these feminists sought to carry ‘sanitary reform’—an understanding of the proper conditions of domesticity—to the poor.

It was typical of her caution that from 1858 Parkes had been nervous of confronting a contentious issue such as women's suffrage. But opinion was shifting, and in July 1864 the journal printed extracts from Harriet Taylor Mill's article ‘The enfranchisement of women’. By November 1865 Davies could write ‘some people are inclined to begin a subdued kind of agitation for the franchise’ (Davies to Mr Tomkinson, 10 Nov 1865, Davies papers). After debates in the Kensington Ladies Debating Society, Davies and Bodichon initiated the preparation of a petition presented to the House of Commons in June 1866, in consultation with John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor, and led the first committee set up to campaign for women's suffrage in October 1866.

By this stage, however, the activities of the group had fragmented. Even by 1862 there was much concern as to the financial future of the journal, and internal disagreements among members of the group. Faithfull was involved in a scandalous divorce case, and religious differences between Catholic, Anglican, and Unitarian perspectives were surfacing. There were conflicts as to whether their work should continue to be primarily women-only, as Parkes believed, or play its part in mixed campaigns and voluntary associations, as Davies argued. By August 1864 it was decided to wind up the journal. Parkes started the new Alexandra Magazine, which failed, and gradually withdrew from feminist activity. But Jessie Boucherett inherited and renamed the paper as the Englishwoman's Review, which continued to publish until 1903.

The ideas and the practice of the Langham Place group were pervaded by the complexities of liberal feminism. Although some individuals led unconventional lives, there was no public confrontation of the sexual double standard or codes of propriety. Accepting the importance of sexual difference, members of the group argued for the distinctive and particular contribution which women could make to society. Conscious of women's need for autonomy, they asserted the need for equal educational provision and for unfettered access to the employment market, though often with qualifications and ambiguities. Their analyses and their solutions were derived from the perspectives of the reforming middle classes, as was the concept of female citizenship with which, as individuals, they mostly continued to work.

Jane Rendall

Sources  

C. A. Lacey, ed., Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the Langham Place Group (1987) · P. Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827–1891: feminist, artist and rebel (1998) · P. Nestor, ‘A new departure in women's publishing: the English Woman's Journal and the Victoria Magazine’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 15 (1982), 93–106 · J. Rendall, ‘“A moral engine?” Feminism, liberalism and the English Woman's Journal’, Equal or different: women's politics, 1800–1914, ed. J. Rendall (1987), 112–38 · J. Rendall, ‘Friendship and politics: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–91) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829–1925)’, Sexuality and subordination: interdisciplinary studies of gender in the nineteenth century, ed. S. Mendus and J. Rendall (1989), 136–70 · A. Rosen, ‘Emily Davies and the women's movement’, Journal of British Studies, 19/1 (1979–80), 101–21 · Girton Cam., Parkes MSS; Davies MSS · E. Faithfull, ‘Open council’, English Woman's Journal, 10 (1862), 70–71 · Mrs Jameson [A. Jameson], Sisters of charity and The communion of labour: two lectures on the social employments of women, new edn (1859) · H. Taylor, ‘The enfranchisement of women’, Westminster Review, 55 (1851), 289–311 · B. Caine, English feminism, 1780–1980 (1997) · L. Goldman, Science, reform, and politics in Victorian Britain: the Social Science Association, 1857–1886 (2002) · C. Hall, K. McClelland, and J. Rendall, Defining the Victorian nation: class, race, gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (2000) · L. Holcombe, Wives and property: reform of the married women's property law in nineteenth-century England (1983) · L. Holcombe, Victorian ladies at work: middle-class working women in England and Wales, 1850–1914 (1973) · A. J. Hammerton, Emigrant gentlewomen: genteel poverty and female emigration, 1830–1914 (1979) · P. Levine, Feminist lives in Victorian England: private roles and public commitment (1990) · K. E. McCrone, ‘The National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and the advancement of Victorian women’, Atlantis [Canada], 8 (1982), 44–66 · G. R. Searle, Morality and the market in Victorian Britain (1998) · M. L. Shanley, Feminism, marriage, and the law in Victorian England, 1850–1895 (1989) · B. Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College (1927) · E. J. Yeo, The contest for social science: relations and representations of gender and class (1996)