By Dr Mary Holmes (Twitter -@MaryHolmes4)
Elizabeth grew up in Roe Green, near Manchester, in a family for whom religion was central; and yet, as an adult she moved away from religion. Looking at her life and work as an early feminist, there are clear indications of why she made the move to become a secularist.
Although her mother died three days after her birth, she grew up in a close family with strong links to the Independent Methodist Church. Her grandmother ran the Sunday School and her father was the Minister. Roe Green in the 1830s had no church and so he preached from a stone that still stands in the Church grounds today. The family was part of a strong network of Radicals and Elizabeth grew up among debates about the social and political challenges of the time – working conditions, low pay, the high price of bread.
So where were the turning points to question religion? During a discussion with her father she challenged him about eternal punishment and received a severe beating for questioning her father and religion. At the time it was difficult for a girl to get a good education. She was lucky that her grandfather provided her with two years at Fulneck Moravian School. That gave her a broad education that also exposed her to the principles of equality, fundamental to the Moravian religion.
The school records show that she was intelligent and she had a great desire to continue her education. At the time females were not allowed to go to University. Hence, she had to witness her brother gain the higher education denied to her simply because she was a girl. Also, her brother had to become a member of the Church of England, as the law required all students to be members of the State Church: Elizabeth would have resented this connection between education and the Church.
Elizabeth influences education
From an early age Elizabeth wanted to have a job and live independently, which certainly challenged social norms of the time. Her education at Fulneck, followed by some personal study, equipped her to work as a governess. During this time she will have witnessed how most middle class mothers focused their daughters’ education on skills making them attractive to an eligible, and hopefully wealthy, husband. One can imagine this did not sit comfortably with Elizabeth.
Thanks to a small inheritance from her grandfather, she was able to move back to Manchester to set up her own school: she later opened a school in Congleton where she became a renowned headmistress. Not only did she influence her own students, she took on national roles to improve girls’ education and teacher training. While working as a governess and teacher, the law required her to teach religion. By 1871 she could no longer teach something she did not believe in and left education.
Religion and marriage
The Victorian bride was walked down the aisle by her father who then gave her to the man she was to marry – literally. As a married woman legally she owned nothing, not any money she earned or inherited, not even the clothes she wore. Not surprisingly, this was abhorrent to Elizabeth who spent years fighting for the Married Women’s Property Act. Many MPs, all men of course, resisted this law as it would allow their wives to gain some independence.
Elizabeth was determined to live by her beliefs. When her brother, Joseph, got engaged she was thrilled and invited him and Theresa Kraus to Congleton to marry. They happily accepted only to find that Elizabeth stayed at her home on Buxton Road, refusing to attend the service at St Peter’s Church: even for her brother’s wedding, she refused to hear the bride say ‘I do.’
The same dilemma had faced her when she met the man who was to become her life long partner. Ben Elmy held the same views as Elizabeth and so for a number of years they lived together happily in Congleton as an unmarried couple: I will leave you to imagine the reaction of many locals. When Elizabeth became pregnant with her son Frank, this matter came to a head. Several of her friends were worried that being an unmarried mother would harm their many feminist campaigns. Ben and Elizabeth unwillingly responded and in the spring of 1874 they held a simple non-religious ceremony that spoke of equality, freedom and shared love. Sadly, this was not enough: in October they gave in to pressure and held a civil marriage ceremony.
Feminists and religion
Numerous Victorian feminists faced the dilemma of how formal religion demanded women to uphold religion both in the home and church, and yet denied women equality. Some managed to balance the two, while others refused to accept religious beliefs.
Both her brother and Ben were close friends of Charles Bradlaugh: in 1866 he founded the National Secularist Society, by bringing together many local secularist groups. Elizabeth will have keenly learned about the concept of separating state institutions from religious institutions. She became committed to human rights that guaranteed no discrimination based on religious beliefs.
Elizabeth was a passionate feminist who lived by her radical beliefs. By denouncing religion she placed herself outside the accepted norms of the day. Her tireless efforts resulted in many significant changes to women’s rights, both during her life and well into the late twentieth century – she was truly visionary.
Image: book cover My book ‘Elizabeth: the feisty feminist’ uncovers her tireless efforts for women’s rights and explores how her achievements influence our lives today.
hank you Mary for writing this introduction to this neglected feminist and secularist voice
Elizabeth is one of the Radical Victorians featured in my book. You can see her on the cover.