Before the Vote

Hackney’s early feminists on Education, Social Reform and the Right to Vote

From fighting for equal access to education to the right to vote, Hackney’s women battled to ensure the future female generations of East London had access to the opportunities they were not granted. This blog will provide a broad outline of the stories and movements of Hackney’s feminists from the 1600s to the beginning of the 1900s and how their revolutionary ideas and actions have shaped the society we live in today.


Hackney was home to some of the earliest champions of education for women, an idea that was viewed by many as dangerous and radical. However this did not stop these pioneering women. In the 1600s Hackney was known as the ‘ladies university’ with 3 out of the 13 well known girls boarding schools in the country hosted in the borough by 1694. One of these early champions was Hannah Woolley, who after the death of her parents, became a teacher aged only 14 and went on to run a school in Hackney with as many as sixty pupils. Woolley also published numerous popular books in which she stressed the intellectual equality of the sexes if given the same educational advantages.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, famed for her feminist writings, also opened a school for girls on Newington Green in 1783. She documented this experience in her book ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.’ In 1792 she published again, arguing in the ‘Vindication Of The Rights of Woman’ that women were inhibited by a lack of education which stopped them from fulfilling their potential, they were not naturally inferior to men. Becoming an instant bestseller Wollstonecraft’s writing was translated into French and German, and published in America. In 1824 Susanna Corder opened the Newington Academy for Girls whose avant-garde thinking taught chemistry, astronomy and physics to girls. These defenders of female education in Hackney are part of the reason we have equal access to learning in this country, though it is important to remember this is not the case for all girls around the world and so the struggle for universal equal education is one that needs to be continually recognized and fought for.

Social Reformers

Many of Hackney’s women have challenged the conventions and the status quo of their society beyond the right to an education and the right to a vote. Anna Letitia Barbauld is one of these women, who in a time when politics was regarded as a man’s world, showed that in the late 1700s a woman could and would engage in the political discourse. Attacking the international Slave Trade and taking an anti-war position, her readers were often surprised to learn that her coherent and rational arguments were the work of a woman. Her work served as inspiration for other female authors who followed her trailblazing example.

Anna Letitia Barbauld by John Chapman (1798)

Another one of Hackney’s inspirational female social reformers was Olive Christian Malvery, who born in what is now Pakistan and raised in India, moved to Britain in 1898. Her social reforming work started with her involvement with ‘The Girl’s Guild of Good Life’ based at Hoxton Hall. Exposing her to the stories and lives of many poor local women, which inspired her to investigate the working conditions of poor women and children in London. To do this she went undercover as a factory girl, flower seller and waitress. Malvery published her investigations as a hugely successful collection, entitled ‘The Soul Market,’ and went on to use the royalties to build two shelters for homeless women in London. Malvery continued her social exposes and penned another on child labour in London.

One of the photographs included in Malvery’s book The Soul Market

The work of these women showed to many that the ‘fairer sex’ were just as capable of both understanding, fighting for change and having an opinion on political and social issues.

Right to Vote

By the late 1800s Hackney women were shaping policy via poor relief and education as poor law guardians and as elected representatives on school boards. This political involvement was continued with the Qualification of Women Act 1907, which enable women to be elected and to serve on county and borough councils in England and Wales. Hackney’s women took advantage of this and started to play a role in local politics and in 1910, Nettie Adler was elected as the Progressive Party candidate for the Central Hackney Division of the London County Council. However, although now allowed to represent their county and borough and in 1918 permitted the right to run as an MP (Qualification of Women Act, 1918), women were still not permitted the right to vote for these representatives. The suffragists movement in Hackney can be traced back to Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Vindication Of The Rights of Woman’ which many view as the founding text of feminism that inspired women’s suffrage campaigners, including Millicent Fawcett. In 1907 many Haggerston residents signed a petition asking for women to be given the right to vote in parliamentary elections. What is now known as the Humble Petition, which outlined its argument as

the exclusion of Women, otherwise legally qualified, from voting in the election for Members of Parliament is injurious to those from whom the vote is withheld, and contrary to the principle of just representation.

The Humble Petition (1907)

So although a large number of people signed with an ‘X’,  which may be due to an inability to write their name, it still indicates a wish to have their views represented in national government. So although it wasn’t until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 could vote, the same age as men, it is significant to recognize the work of Hackney’s women and residents to push for this right to vote.

In the words of Sarah Jackson, co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum,

Hackney has a very rich history of women’s activism across a huge range of issues and we’re extremely proud to share these stories of women’s courage, creativity, and determination in the borough

I too am proud to have grown up in the same borough as these revolutionary women and hope their legacies continue to be told and continue to grow.

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