The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life

Peter Baxter - April 1, 2018

During the Regency and Victorian era’s, it was regarded as essential for an intelligent woman to hide her acumen, to depend on male patronage and fall back on the limitations of chivalry. The irony of this, of course, is that during the Victorian era, the British Empire, the greatest and most powerful empire known to man, was ruled by a woman. Queen Victoria, although limited by the constitutional restraints placed on royal authority, was nonetheless one of the most powerful monarchs of the modern age, and a woman who very much knew her own mind.

The Victorian Era marked a moment in history when social reform took center stage. Abolition, of course, was the greatest social achievement of the age, but penal reform, poor laws, a wider dissemination of the franchise and a general liberalization of society all characterized those vital years at the turn of the twentieth century.

Much of this had to do with a filtering down of the concepts of enlightenment, the rise of parliaments in the wake of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the popular press. Women stood at the forefront of the abolition movement and various other social reform agendas, and under the informal patronage of Victoria herself, it was during the Victorian era that modern feminism was born.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Emily Hobhouse, an early Victorian Feminist and Human Rights Activist. New Historian

Emily Hobhouse

We are going to kick off this list with a woman who is probably not widely known in more orthodox feminist circles, and she certainly was not one to chain herself to parliament or go on hunger strikes. In fact, Emily Hobhouse could perhaps be better described as an early human rights activist than a feminist.

Emily Hobhouse was born in 1860, the daughter of an Anglican archdeacon, and she grew up influenced by an extended family all in one way or another active in the social movement. Her mother died when she was twenty, and for the next fourteen years she cared for her ailing father. After his death in 1895, however, she travelled to the United States on a welfare mission to assist Cornish miners in Minnesota, and there she was briefly engaged, and then impoverished by ill-advised speculation.

In 1898, she returned to England, and at about that time, the Anglo/Boer War broke out in South Africa. As a humanitarian and peace activist, she immediately became involved in the women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee. It was then that she became aware of the plight of Boer women and children in South Africa, interned in concentration camps as the British pursued a scorched earth policy. She founded the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children, and in 1900 she arrived in South Africa to actively participate in providing relief. General Lord Kitchener, commander of operation in South Africa, referred to her more than once as ‘That Damned Woman’, an epithet she wore with considerable pride.

After her initial visits to the camps, Emily Hobhouse developed a deep affinity for Afrikaner women, and she pointed to that moment as the birth of her feminist sensibilities. She became an active anti-war campaigner, and was instrumental in bringing the horrors of the South African concentration camps to the attention of the British public.

While in South Africa, she met the Indian activist Mohandas K Gandhi, whose early political experience was forged in the South African race struggle. The two became close friends, and Emily Hobhouse was instrumental bringing about a reconciliation between Gandhi, as leader of the South African Indians, and Jan Smuts, South African Attorney general and twice Prime Minister.

She fell ill en route to South Africa to attend the inauguration of a National Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, and back in England she died in 1926. Her ashes are embedded in the monument to South African women.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Elizabeth Molteno, South African educationist, activist and feminist. Wikicommons

Elizabeth Molteno

Still in South Africa, and a lifelong friend of Emily Hobhouse, we find Elizabeth Maria Molteno, or ‘Betty’, as she was better known. Betty Molteno was born in 1852 into an influential political family in the Cape Colony of South Africa. Her father, John Molteno, served twice as Prime Minister of the Cape, and was an extremely wealthy man.

The Cape Colony, however, enjoyed a liberal tradition, and it was perhaps easier for Betty Molteno to discard the conventions of Victorian womanhood than it might have been in England. She was unashamedly intelligent, well educated and encouraged by her liberal father to express herself with absolute freedom. Her interests developed unconventionally, and as a friend and confident of Mohandas K Gandhi, she began to value simplicity of life and non-religious spirituality, exploring vegetarianism, theosophism and various other fringe interests that were gathering in popularity at the time.

At the time, the Cape Colony, largely thanks to her father, employed a liberal, ‘color-blind’ constitution that was somewhat at variance with the much more rigid race codes of the rest of South Africa. She became very active in promoting race and gender equality in South Africa, an in particular the extension of education to girls. As an educator, she promoted these values, and worked to reform and modernize the Cape education system.

It was during the Anglo/Boer War that she met Emily Hobhouse and Olive Schreiner, who we will meet later, and the three women formed a formidable front in the anti-war movement in South Africa. Her activities alongside Emily Hobhouse in aiding Boer women, and publicizing their plight, earned her a reputation for being ‘pro-Boer’, for which she was forced to resign her teaching job.

After the war she moved to London where she became actively involved in Gandhi’s South African activism, and where she also joined Christabel Pankhurst in the Suffragette movement.

Back in South Africa, Gandhi’s passive resistance movement, or Satyagraha, was gathering momentum, and upon her return to South Africa she moved briefly into his Phoenix Settlement to engage more vigorously in the struggle. There she became actively involved in the development of African education. Joining Emily Hobhouse and Olive Schreiner in England during WWI, she actively campaigned against the war, and there too, in 1927, she died. She was described by South African author Phillida Brooke Simons as One of the most remarkable South African women of her generation.’

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Olive Schreiner, South African author, feminist, peace activist and equal rights campaigner. Matjiesfontein Blog

Olive Schreiner

We conclude our South African triumvirate with Olive Schreiner, perhaps the poster child of early anti-discrimination and anti-war activism in South Africa during the early twentieth-century. Oliver Schreiner is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking book, The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883 when she was just twenty-eight. The book, published under the pseudonym ‘Ralph Iron’, was acclaimed then, as it is today, as the first open exposure of themes of agnosticism, existential independence, individualism, the professional aspirations of women and the fundamental nature of life on the colonial frontier. She went on to write numerous books and treatise, all of a strong social and political nature. She was extremely active in the civil rights movement in South Africa during the closing decade of the 19th century, as matters of race and equality were beginning to enter into the mainstream of national dialogue.

Olive Schreiner was militantly feminist, powerfully intelligent and forthright to the last degree. She was wholly unintimidated by the powerful male hierarchy of the Cape Colony, where she clashed bitterly and frequently with the Prime Minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes.

In 1911, while in exile in England, she wrote and published ‘Women and Labour’, which influenced the movement of emancipation both in England and America through the 1910s-1930s. ‘Women’, she wrote, tended to be ‘parasitic’ and social conditions ‘robbed them of all forms of active, conscious social labour…reducing them, like the field tick, to the passive exercise of their sex functions alone’.

She anticipated the moment when women would enjoy an equal share in government and economy, believing that when that moment arrived, war would cease to be the universal method of setting differences. Women, she wrote, ‘understand what unites the races better than men because of their common experience of mothering’.

She believed, and passionately advocated for equality of pay, in a society where much of the productive work was done by women. ‘The fact that for equal work equally well performed by a man and by a woman, it is ordained that the woman on the ground of her sex alone shall receive a less recompense’, she said, ‘is the nearest approach to a willful and unqualified “wrong” in the whole relation of woman to society today’

Such forceful activism, however, won her few friends, and as an abrasive and opinionated personality, she was apt to alienate friend and foe alike, and for much of her life was a lonely and isolated figure. She died in December 1920, aged sixty-five, and in buried in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Elizabeth Fry, the great Victorian prison reformer. Regency History

Elizabeth Fry

The name Elizabeth Fry is forever associated with Newgate Prison, one of the earliest institutions of incarceration in London. The reform movement in Britain at the time was driven, of course, by all of the elements of enlightenment, but also by the enormous changes brought about in British society by the Industrial Revolution, and the subsequent demographic shifts from rural to urban. The administration of justice was one early focuses of this movement, and penal reform subsequently became the subject of a great deal of impassioned debate.

Elizabeth Fry was Quaker, a Christian organization responsible for a great many of the social reform of the age. She was born in 1780 into a well-to-do middle-class banking family, and enjoyed a comfortable and closeted childhood. She married into the Fry confectionary family, and might easily have settled into obscurity had she not, by chance, visited the notorious Newgate Prison in East London.

There she was moved in particular by the deplorable conditions of the women’s section, where women and children existed in cramped and overcrowded conditions. Women ate, defecated, cooked and ate in the same cells were they slept on straw. Elizabeth Fry recalled often with horror the sight of children clinging to their mothers as they were dragged to the gallows.

She initially did little more to assist than preach, and although her efforts would always have a Christian overtone, she very quickly realized that preaching alone was not enough. So she founded the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners of Newgate, through which she was able to provide more practical assistance, but which also became a very important and influential vehicle for generating awareness. In 1818, she presented testimony to the British House of Commons, which resulted directly in the tabling and passing of the landmark Prison Reform Act of 1823.

Thereafter, with considerable momentum behind her, she broadened her direct outreach to women’s prisons nationwide, creating halfway houses and night shelters for vulnerable and vagrant women. She also campaigned tirelessly to modify and improve the transportation system, which was by then beginning to gather pace.

Elizabeth Fry was without doubt one of the most important social reformers of the age, and a pioneer of a movement of social reform that, after her in 1845, at the of sixty-five, continued to gather strength.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Lucretia Mott, abolitionist and feminist. Famous People

Lucretia Mott

Another prominent name in the Quaker movement was Lucretia Mott, a name most associated with the US abolition movement, but also a powerful force in the growing feminist movement in the United States. Born in 1793, the daughter of a Nantucket ship’s captain, she was raised in Quaker tradition and was inculcated from a very early age with the strong abolitionist position of the Quakers. She was also surrounded, again through Quaker influence, with strong female role models, and when she took up a teaching position in New York, a great deal of her emphasis was on promoting education for girls.

Feminism in the United States at that time was a secondary social issue to the much greater movement advocating abolition. Lucretia Mott was a founding member and president of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, inaugurated in 1833. Her famous anathema was vocal abolitionist who still took sugar in their tea

In 1840, she travelled to London to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention, but she was denied a seat at the conference because of her gender, after which she placed herself outside the venue and preached, not only the anti-slavery message of the Quakers, but also the doctrine of female equality. In London she made the acquaintance of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a fellow American, and wife of abolitionist delegate Henry Stanton. The two women became lifelong friends, and in partnership launched the American Women’s Rights Movement in New York in 1848. Lucretia Mott was elected president of the Association in 1852.

Her feminist philosophy was presented in her Discourse on Women, first published in 1850, in which she argued that the female role in society was defined less by innate inferiority that a lack of equal opportunity and access to education.

After the Civil War, and the advent of abolition, Lucretia Mott entered the cause of black suffrage and aid for emancipated blacks. She was in every respect a pioneering social reformer in the United States, and a powerful voice in the merging feminist movement.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early radical feminist and abolitionist. History

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Like so many social reformer of the age, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s interests covered the full spectrum of issues and agendas, but she is best remembered as the founding voice of the early women’s rights movement in the United States.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born into a wealthy New York legal and political family, and unlike many women of the age, she was well educated. She attended first the Johnstown Academy, continuing thereafter to higher education in the Troy Female Seminary in New York, founded and run by women’s rights activist Emma Willard. In 1848, with the help of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth organized the world’s first women’s rights convention, but unlike Mott, who did not consider it a priority, she insisted that female suffrage be included in the resolutions of the conference.

In 1851, she met and befriended Susan B Anthony, and from that moment on one of the most powerful and influential partnerships in the cause of female emancipation was born. In 1854, Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered an address to the New York legislature on an omnibus women’s rights bill, speaking passionately for the cause. In 1860, the bill was passed, and most of the legal reforms in regards to women’s rights she sought, with the significant exception of enfranchisement, were achieved.

Upon the advent of the Civil War, she and Susan B Anthony plunged into the abolition debate, forming the National Women’s Loyal League, lobbying passionately for the constitutional abolition of slavery. After the war, however, the two women created enormous controversy among fellow reformers by trying to link female suffrage to black suffrage, and when this failed, by criticizing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for ignoring woman suffrage.

They then turned to constitutional reform, and in 1869 founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, forerunner of the organization that would eventually secure the Nineteenth Amendment.

Always highly militant and controversial, Elizabeth Cady Stanton raised her voice frequently in matters such as divorce law liberalization, and urging women to leave unhappy and abusive marriages. She advocated birth control, and what she referred to as the ‘right to self-sovereignty’ of women. However, thanks to her support for liberalized divorce laws, reproductive self-determination and greater sexual freedom for women, she became increasingly estranged from the mainstream of women’s rights reformers.

She also diverged from the likes of Lucretia Mott in her open distaste for organized religion, and fell foul of numerous religious and temperance organizations for her outspoken views and radical opinions. She was, in fact, far ahead of her time, and while embittered somewhat by these rejections, she continued her independent course on behalf of women’s emancipation until her death in 1902.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Susan B Anthony, firebrand feminist and abolitionist. Makers

Susan B. Anthony

Another prominent Quaker in the early reform movement was Susan B Anthony. A confederate of both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, Susan B Anthony was a lifelong crusader for women’s rights, abolition and black rights. Born in 1820 into a prominent American Quaker family, she was surrounded by forceful role models committed to social equality. At the age of seventeen she was to be found gathering petitions in support of the anti-slavery movement, and in 1856 she was appointed New York State agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

It was in 1851, however, after meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that Susan B Anthony began to focus her efforts on women’s rights. In 1852, the two women founded the New York Women’s State Temperance Society, and in 1863, the Women’s Loyal National League. It was the latter organization that ran the largest petition in United States history to date, gathering almost 400,000 signatures in support of the abolition of slavery.

Then, in 1866, these two indefatigable women founded the American Equal Rights Association, which campaigned not only for equal rights for women, but also for the rights, liberties and freedom of black Americans. Two years later, they launched the radical women’s rights journal the Revolution, and the following year the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Both women, however, were often a little too outspoken and radical in their reformist views, and as such they frequently ran afoul of the more conservative voices in the same movement. The National Woman Suffrage Association was a split from the more mainstream American Woman Suffrage Association, and over this, and many other issues, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony stood far to the left of their peers. Nonetheless, in 1890, the two organizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

The high point of their association, however, came in their collaboration in writing the History of Woman Suffrage, published in six volumes between 1881 to 1922. In 1872, Susan B Anthony pushed boundaries even further by illegally voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, which resulted in her arrest and conviction in a widely publicized trial.

Quite naturally, she refused to pay the fine, and to avoid any adverse publicity, the authorities let the matter rest. Then, in 1878, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton lobbied Congress to debate an amendment to the constitution granting women the right to vote. The bill was introduced by Senator Aaron A. Sargent, and when eventually passed it became known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The bill was ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Millicent Fawcett, suffragist and educationalist. I News

Millicent Fawcett

At the same time as all of this was taking place in the United States, back in Britain, the Suffragist movement was taking root, and one of the foremost names in this movement was Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Fawcett was another product of the prosperous British middle classes, and she, and her older sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, enjoyed a liberal upbringing during which their natural intelligence and social curiosity was encouraged. She was born in 1847, and educated at a private boarding school in south London. Her sister would go on to become the first qualified female doctor in the United Kingdom, and it was through Elizabeth Garrett Anderson that Millicent was first introduced to the liberal Anglican minister Frederick Denison Maurice. Maurice’s sermons on equality and social reform greatly influenced her, as did the views and opinions of Emily Davies, a fellow suffragist who exerted a powerful influence on her early development.

In a letter to her sister, Millicent Fawcett wrote: ‘It is quite clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you open the medical profession to women. After these things are done, we must see about getting the vote.’

Millicent Fawcett identified as a ‘suffragist’, and not a ‘suffragette’. In this regard she advocated a moderate approach, rejecting entirely the violent and confrontational methods of Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers, by then beginning to agitate forcefully.

The thrust of Millicent Fawcett’s advocacy was education for girls. Like Lucretia Mott, she believed that education would found the pathway to equality for women. Rabble-rousing protest and violent confrontation had no place in her philosophy. In 1897, she was elected to the presidency of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and in 1991, along with Emily Hobhouse, she travelled to South Africa to investigate conditions for women in the concentration camps then in operation. Unlike Emily Hobhouse, however, her report was seen as a vindication of the administration of these camps.

Reflecting deep fissures in the movement, Millicent Fawcett’s moderate approach was often at variance with her peers, but nonetheless she remained a steady force in the progress of education for girls, eventually founding Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the first English university colleges for women.

After WWI, she was made a Dame of the British Empire, which, of course, further alienated her from the radical fringe, but nonetheless, she is regarded as one of the primary forces behind the eventual achievement of suffrage for women, finally enacted in the British parliament in 1918.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursing and political activist. The Good Heart

Florence Nightingale

Revered as the ‘Lady of the Lamp’, Florence Nightingale is perhaps best remembered for pioneering the concept of modern nursing, but she was also an early social reformer and feminist, and towards the end of her life, a powerful symbol of the reform and feminist movements.

Uniquely among socially active women of the age, Florence Nightingale was born in 1820 into an extremely wealthy, upper-class English family, and she was named after the Italian city in Tuscany where she was born. On all sides of her extended family were liberal social reformers, and she was gifted with the dual advantages of significant social gravity and a wide-ranging education. Her philanthropic tendencies were evident from a young age, and to the consternation of her parents, she chose a career in nursing. This was then regarded as a vocation rather than a profession, and seen among the upper-classes to be menial. Despite their objections, however, in 1844, she enrolled as a nursing student at the Lutheran Hospital in Kaiserwerth, Germany.

Back in London in the 1850s, she was thrown into the deep end as a cholera outbreak wracked the British capital, and immediately it became clear to her that conditions of hygiene were the main contributor to the spread of the disease. She made it her mission to improve these conditions, which quickly proved successful. Then, in October 1853, the Crimean War broke out, and, thanks to her social position, she was commissioned by the Secretary of War to organize a nursing corps to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers.

Within a few days she had assembled a team of thirty-four nurses from a variety of religious orders, and with these she sailed for the Crimea. What she encountered was almost unimaginable conditions, with an nearly complete abandonment of the sick and dying. Recognizing again that hygiene was the key, she set to work. Her regular visits to the wards at night, lamp in hand, gave her the immortal epithet ‘The Lady of the Lamp’.

By these means, Florence Nightingale reduced the death toll of wounded soldiers by two-thirds. What she learned by this experience, and the fame that she acquired as a consequence, helped her establish the first dedicated school for nurses at London’s famous St Thomas’ hospital – the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.

In this regard Florence Nightingale established the basis of modern nursing, but also she elevated the reputation of the profession, attracting to its ranks women of both breeding and wealth.

Beyond that, Florence Nightingale leveraged her fame and respectability to a great many social causes, from abolition to women’s rights, but perhaps mostly to the modernization and professionalism of the nursing vocation.

The 10 Greatest Feminists of the Victorian Era Will Give You Life
Emmeline Pankhurst, the poster child of the feminist movement, and the original suffragette. Pininterest

Emmeline Pankhurst

And now we come to the doyen of the feminist movement, the redoubtable and much feared Emmeline Pankhurst, nee Goulden. Born in 1858 in Manchester, she was raised by parents committed to reform and radical politics. In 1879 she married lawyer Richard Pankhurst, a fellow left-leaning advocate of women’s suffrage. He was the author of the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, which, for the first time, allowed women to keep earnings or property acquired before and after marriage.

It was after his death in 1898 that Emmeline became active in the suffragist movement, founding the Women’s Franchise League, the agenda of which was to secure voting rights for married women. Soon, however, she was engaged in founding the much more radical Women’s Social and Political Union. This organization would gain considerable notoriety for it militant and aggressive methods, and soon enough its members were known under notorious moniker ‘Suffragettes’.

Emmeline’s daughters Christabel and Sylvia were both as equally active as their mother, and the British political establishment and general public were astonished, and appalled at the methods the movement employed. Loud demonstrations, window smashing, arson, hunger strikes and women chaining themselves to the gates of parliament. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. In 1913, Women’s Social and Political Union member Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby, as a protest at the government’s continued refusal to consider granting voting rights to women.

Emmeline Pankhurst herself was arrested and went on hunger strike numerous times, and was on occasions force-fed. In response to this, and similar actions all over Britain, the government introduced what was known as the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, whereby women were released until they regained their strength, and then rearrested.

These militant actions were interrupted by WWI, at which point all loyal citizens of the Empire directed their attention to the war effort. But the message had been delivered, and in 1918, at the end of the war, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30. In June 1928, soon after women were granted equal voting rights with men.

In 1999, the Times of London named Pankhurst one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, stating ‘she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.’


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Olive Schreiner, South African writer”. Encyclopedia Britannica, March 2017

“Olive Schreiner”. South African History, March 2018

“Elizabeth Fry, Prison reformer.” Christianity Today

“Lucretia Mott.” Staff,, 2009

“Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” Staff,, 2009

“Susan B Anthony.” Staff,, 2010

“Florence Nightingale.” Staff,, 2009

“Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, British suffragist.” The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, July 2014

“Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928).” BBC History

“Millicent Fawcett statue unveiling: the women and men whose names will be on the plinth.” heather Saul, I News, April 2018