Strachey [née Costelloe], Rachel Pearsall Conn [Ray] (1887–1940), feminist activist and writer
by Barbara Caine

Strachey [née Costelloe], Rachel Pearsall Conn [Ray] (1887–1940), feminist activist and writer, was born on 4 June 1887 at 40 Grosvenor Road, Westminster, London, the elder daughter (there were no sons) of (Benjamin) Francis Conn Costelloe (1855–1899), solicitor, and his wife, Mary Pearsall Smith, a member of the distinguished Philadelphia Quaker family and sister of the writer . Ray and her sister, Karin [see Karin Elizabeth Conn Costelloe under Gwyneth Bebb], were baptized Catholics, but after their mother's elopement in 1891 with Bernhard Berenson, the art historian, they were brought up by their Quaker grandmother, . Ray was educated at Kensington high school and at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she achieved third class in part one of the mathematical tripos (1908). Both at school and at Newnham she had been a passionate sportswoman with a particular enthusiasm for hockey and cricket. Following a year at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia (then headed by her cousin Carey Thomas and regarded by her mother as a necessary finishing school), she attended lectures on electrical engineering at Oxford University in 1910.

In 1909 Ray Costelloe had met and become very attached to the Strachey family, to which she became formally connected through her marriage, on 31 May 1911, to , later cryptographer and intelligence officer, brother of . He was thirteen years her senior, divorced, and recently returned from India, where he had worked on the East Indian Railway. He was the son of , lieutenant-general. They had a daughter and a son, .

Though born into a family of feminists it was not until she went to Newnham that Ray became interested in women's suffrage. Her friend Ellie Rendel (a niece of Lytton Strachey) took her to suffrage meetings, and together they organized further meetings at Newnham and established a short-lived Younger Women's Suffrage group. When she left university Ray became increasingly involved in suffrage organization. Though briefly attracted to the militant movement she became a member of the moderate constitutionalist London Society for Women's Suffrage. There she began her lifelong collaboration with her close friend and, later, sister-in-law, . She worked closely with Millicent Fawcett, sharing her liberal feminist values—and opposing any attempt to integrate the suffrage movement with the Labour Party.

Ray Strachey's suffrage activity was temporarily interrupted in 1911, when immediately after her marriage she went with her husband to India. Though she hated India she attempted to use the Strachey imperial background to establish a career in the writing of Indian history for herself and Oliver. They produced one slim volume, Keigwin's Rebellion (1916), but this enthusiasm did not last. When Ray discovered she was pregnant she and Oliver returned to London, where to her mother's horror she immediately resumed her suffrage activity.

During the First World War, Ray Strachey's working life became increasingly hectic. An ardent patriot and strong supporter of the British war effort, she worked closely with Millicent Garrett Fawcett to expel what she referred to as ‘the poisonous pacifists’ from the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). In 1915 she became parliamentary secretary of the NUWSS, a role that became increasingly time-consuming after the speaker's conference of 1916, when the need for reform of the existing suffrage laws to enable soldiers to vote put the question of parliamentary reform and of women's suffrage back on the agenda. The highly visible work of women during the war brought greater sympathy for the demand for women's suffrage than had been the case in earlier decades.

The direction of Ray Strachey's own interest during the war shifted from suffrage to the question of women's employment. She worked with Pippa Strachey to organize the Women's Service, which provided war work and training for women, and became chairman of the Women's Service Employment Committee. In 1918 she privately commented that gaining the admission of women to the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was ‘quite the most important thing that could happen for women in England’ now that the vote was won. Strachey was one of the few feminists at the time who combined full-time work with motherhood. She gave birth to her second child in 1916, but the demands of the suffrage movement were such that she refused to give up her work for more than a few weeks.

After the war Strachey continued to devote her attention to furthering women's employment and campaigning for equal pay. She rejected the attempt by Eleanor Rathbone to establish a broad-based feminist programme in the 1920s, concentrating her efforts rather on the London Society for Women's Service (the successor to the London Society for Women's Suffrage), which campaigned for an extension of women's professional employment and for equal pay. She fought particularly for women's admission to the legal profession and to the civil service, and headed the Women's Service Bureau, which campaigned for equal pay for professional women. She was a founder of the Women's Employment Federation and first chairman (1930–39) of the Cambridge University women's employment board.

Though often insisting that parliamentary politics were boring Strachey stood as an independent candidate for Bromford and Bow in 1918, 1920, and 1922 but expressed great delight when she was defeated. She also acted for some years as unpaid parliamentary adviser to Nancy Astor and, sharing as she did the view of many of her contemporaries that questions such as married women's citizenship needed to be dealt with on an international as well as a national basis, was involved for a short time in the League of Nations Union.

In addition to her feminist work Strachey had a lifelong career as a writer. Her first novel, The World at Eighteen (1907), was published while she was in her teens and was followed by a stream of fiction and biography. First came a study of her grandmother's great heroine—Frances Willard: her Life and Work (1912)—then an affectionate biography of Hannah Whitall Smith, A Quaker Grandmother (1914), and two novels: Marching on (1923) and Shaken by the Wind (1927). Her best-known and most successful book, The Cause (1928), was for many decades regarded as the classic account of the English women's movement. While acknowledging in a limited way the importance of the militants it established a version of the suffrage movement that endorsed the views and celebrated the role of Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS. Strachey's adulation of Fawcett was evident also in the biography, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1931), that she wrote shortly after Fawcett's death. Her final books focused closely on her own feminist interests. Careers and Openings for Women (1935) was both a practical handbook and a sociological survey of the female labour market, and the collection of essays that she edited, Our Freedom and its Results (1936), sought to offer a summary of the changes in the legal, social, and economic situation of women since the gaining of suffrage.

Throughout her married life Ray Strachey had depended on the money that she received from the family trust, amply supplemented by the generous allowances paid by her mother and Bernhard Berenson. This enabled her to have domestic help with her children, to drive a motor car, to travel constantly, and to attend the opera whenever she chose. Despite always insisting on her own frugality she was extremely extravagant and had little capacity to plan or manage money. She was also very enterprising, and when Berenson's financial difficulties during the depression brought her allowance to an end she immediately found paid work, first, in 1931, as a political secretary to Lady Astor and then, in 1935, as the head of the Women's Employment Federation. Her income was supplemented by her writing and by her regular broadcasts on the BBC.

A woman of immense energy, Strachey built herself a country home and swimming pool at Friday's Hill, Fernhurst, Sussex. Her London life was filled with political activity and meetings, and satisfied her passion for gossip and intrigue—but it needed the balance of country weekends. As one who had never taken any interest in fashion and disliked social life unless it involved close friends or the Strachey family, her rural retreat suited her extremely well, and she spent her weekdays in London, returning to the country every weekend to build, garden, and swim in the nude. Her social life became increasingly limited throughout the 1920s. Although friendly with many members of Bloomsbury in her youth, by 1919 she had come to dislike their parties and to disparage what she saw as their self-indulgence, nor would she have any kind of social interaction with her rural neighbours. As one who had suffered from her mother's extreme and passionate personal life she disliked any expression of emotion and attempted always to present herself as unemotional and cynical. But she was an extremely devoted mother and always a devoted friend to Pippa Strachey.

Like the other women in her family Strachey suffered from bladder problems for decades. She had what was thought to be a minor operation for a fibroid tumour, but she never recovered, and died on 16 July 1940 in the Royal Free Hospital, London.



B. Strachey, Remarkable relations: the story of the Pearsall Smith family (1980) · B. Harrison, Prudent revolutionaries: portraits of British feminists between the wars (1987) · R. Strachey, The cause: a short history of the women's movement in Great Britain (1928); repr. (1978) [with preface by B. Strachey] · b. cert. · d. cert.


BL, papers · University of Indiana, Bloomington, Lilly Library, papers · Women's Library, London, papers |  Harvard University, near Florence, Italy, Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, letters to Bernhard Berenson · Women's Library, London, corresp. with Millicent Fawcett


photograph, 1909, Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, Smith archive · R. P. C. Strachey, self-portrait, oils, c.1926, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, 1940, Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, Smith archive

Wealth at death  

£3372 10s. 5d.: probate, 10 Sept 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Rachel Pearsall Conn Strachey (1887–1940): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/38017