May 22, 2012
-- Bessie Rayner Parkes is perhaps the most unsung heroine of the mid-nineteenth-
century British women’s movement. Together with Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, these two women formed the heart of the Langham Place Group. Both these young women came from Unitarian and politically liberal families, which meant that they had a rather better education than most middle-class girls of that period, but also their friendship was crucial in the encouragement they gave to each other. Bessie edited a feminist periodical called The English Woman’s Journal and its Langham Place headquarters proved to be the centre of a variety of eclectic activities, as other young women rushed to join them. These included setting up a Society for Promoting the Employment of Women and the establishment of the Victoria Press, which trained and employed women compositors. In the 1860s they started to campaign for the vote for women and petitioned parliament, knowing that it would take many years to achieve their end, but also knowing that political momentum has to be first seized and then maintained.
This book is of significant value for university and research libraries as much less scholarly work has been done on the Langham Place Group than there has been on the later suffragettes, and yet this earlier group articulated first feminist theories and set up activist programmes to help women into work. They lobbied Cambridge University to allow women to take degrees, and orchestrated a climate in which the idea of women having the vote could not be ignored. I welcome this excellent book on Bessie Rayner Parkes, as she is an unjustly overlooked pioneer, and her central role in the Langham Place Group has long needed devoted attention.
Dr Pam Hirsch
University Lecturer in English Literature and Film
Faculty of Education
University of Cambridge