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Fairfield, Zoë Barbara (1878–1936), secretary of the Student Christian Movement, was born at St George's Square, Pimlico, London, on 23 April 1878, the elder of two daughters of Arthur Rowan Fairfield (1840–1915), civil servant, and his wife, Sophie Louise, née Blew-Jones (1858–1936). She was a cousin of Rebecca West, the writer, and Letitia Fairfield, the public health physician. After attending Notting Hill high school, founded by the Girls' Public Day School Company, she was a student at the Slade School of Art (1898).

As a student in London in the late 1890s, Fairfield became an active member of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) which had been growing since 1889 as a network of interdenominational protestant university students dedicated to missionary work overseas. She was honorary secretary and then chairman of the Art Students' Christian Union (1898), and soon afterwards became secretary of the London Women Students' Committee. For twenty years from 1909 she was employed as assistant general secretary of the SCM at its London headquarters. From its inauguration in 1912 she was a committee member of the auxiliary movement for former members of the SCM. In 1929 she stood down from her position at the SCM to become general secretary of the auxiliary movement. Through these posts she took a leading role in the intellectual development of the SCM. She was a member of the conference committee which arranged annual meetings, and was known for exercising critical influence over the selection of themes and speakers. As leader of the auxiliary movement she supervised surveys of contemporary social and spiritual problems, including education, industry, Christian unity, peace, and evangelism.

From her student days Fairfield took a particular interest in the relationship between art, religion, and society. In 1904 she organized a series of lectures on this topic at Leighton House, Kensington, and University College, London, as part of the Art Students' Christian Union's work, writing afterwards in the SCM's magazine that the relationship between art and religion was ‘a message with reason and history and truth on its side’ (Tatlow, 209). In 1915 and 1916 she planned two further series of London lectures through the SCM's fine arts sub-committee, addressing the relationship between different modes of art and religion, and the role of the artist in the church. Her friendships enabled her to secure talks by high-profile speakers, including the writers Arthur Clutton-Brock and G. K. Chesterton, the composer Walford Davies, the artist William Rothenstein, and the actress Lena Ashwell (ibid., 600–02).

Fairfield was a prominent figure in debates about the social position of women in the years before and during the First World War. She supported the suffrage movement, and in early 1913 she wrote a series of four articles on the subject of the women's movement, discussing women's work (and wages), public morality, women and Christianity, and female missionary work (Student Movement, Jan., Feb., and April 1913). A key contribution of this work was its consideration of the current intersection of gender and religion, particularly the debate about women holding lay positions in the church. Her intervention was part of a discussion led by sympathetic men and women, including her cousin Letitia Fairfield, about the role of the religious ministry of women within women's emancipation. Publicly she cemented her place in the debate through supporting the Anglican feminist Maude Royden during the controversy over Royden's preaching in the City Temple in the spring of 1917 (Fletcher, 154).

In 1915 Fairfield edited a collection of essays on the position of women in society, Some Aspects of the Woman's Movement, to which she contributed pieces on ‘The woman's movement, the Christian ethic and the individual’ and ‘The woman's movement and the family’. In her writing she compared the outwardly confused morality of the formal woman's movement with the clear vision of women as a whole, who were ‘passionately aware that such standards have often been allowed to imply the degradation of whole classes of women; they see that chivalry has failed in the pressure of modern life’ (Fairfield, Some Aspects, 172). Her intellectual position in these discussions was always to relate women's status to and alongside men's. This commitment to gender equality became a practical cornerstone of the SCM. The Revd A. Herbert Gray noted in 1932 that ‘the sex difference is more nearly forgotten in the inner life of the Movement than in any other department of the life of mankind’ (Gray, 360).

While the women's movement provided an important domestic arena for Fairfield's activity, she became more widely known for her interrelated contributions to international mission work and emerging ecumenical thought. Following the SCM's contribution to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910, she was invited to join the general committee of the World's Student Christian Federation in Constantinople in 1911. During the First World War she was influential in the establishment of Student Movement House, London (1917), which welcomed foreign students of any race or faith. In the years immediately after the war she worked with Russian students in exile in France. One of her colleagues in this work was the Swiss refugee activist Gustav Kullmann, with whom she drew up the constitution of the International Student Service in 1926. Alongside evangelical churchmen like William Paton, Fairfield worked to broaden the SCM's conception of mission to include international affairs and politics. James Parkes, a staff member of the International Student Service in Geneva, recalled his discussions with her in the 1930s about a true and creative place for Christianity. For Fairfield, what was needed was a ‘Christian Chatham House, with a regular daily round of prayer and worship, combined with full time residential study and facilities’, although she conceded that the economic slump was not conducive to establishing such an ambitious project (Parkes, 144).

Fairfield's portrait shows a statuesque woman with spectacles and a warm smile. The Russian émigré Nicolas Zernov wrote that ‘her most striking features were her eyes, intelligent penetrating, missing nothing’ (Zernov, 86). She combined administrative skills with intellectual engagement, and in her case a ‘first-class mind’ (Tatlow, 366). She was regarded with the highest esteem within the SCM, admired for her efficiency and a capacity for friendship ‘without bounds’ (ibid., 851). Her nephew, the advertising agent David Ogilvy, wrote that ‘if my aunt had been a man, she would have become an archbishop’ (Ogilvy, 4), but like many socially reformist women of her generation, Fairfield found ways of establishing cultural and intellectual authority outside the boundaries of the male-dominated professional world. She died at her home, 44 Ravenscroft Avenue, Golders Green, London, on 10 December 1936 after a short illness.

Eve Colpus

Sources  

The Times (12 Dec 1936) · R. Boyd, The witness of the Student Christian Movement: church ahead of the church (2007) · S. Fletcher, Maude Royden: a life (1989) · A. H. Gray, ‘The Student Christian Movement’, The Expository Times (1932) · D. Ogilvy, An autobiography (1997) · J. Parkes, Voyage of discoveries (1969) · M. B. Reckitt, Faith and society: a study of the structure, outlook and opportunity of the Christian social movement in Great Britain and the United States of America (1932) · M. Sinclair, William Paton (1949) · T. Tatlow, The story of the Student Christian Movement (1933) · N. Zernov, Sunset years: a Russian pilgrim in the West (1983) · census returns, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 · births, marriages, and deaths registers

Archives  

Student Christian Movement archives, Birmingham, corresp. · Yale U., Divinity School Library, archives of World Student Christian Federation, corresp., 1910–24


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in T. Tatlow, Student Christian Movement (1933), facing p. 674

Wealth at death  

£6777 8s. 11d.: administration, 14 Jan 1938, CGPLA Eng. & Wales