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Remembering early women activists

Remembering early women activists

Summary

Professor Clare Midgley’s research into nineteenth-century British women’s activism has led to key roles in community group projects planning public monuments for these pioneering women, and a consultancy role with English Heritage. Through this involvement, her research has been able to play a crucial role in both initiating and shaping local projects to commemorate pioneering British feminists and abolitionists It has also influenced national policy on historic sites associated with women’s history.

Our research

Professor Midgley published Feminism and Empire in 2007, a book providing the first detailed study of the interconnections between the development of modern western feminism and Britain’s global expansion as an imperial power between the 1790s and the 1860s. Previous studies had focused on the period following the emergence of an organised women’s movement in the mid 1860s. She went further back, to the period of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s foundational feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, at the height of the first major public campaign against the transatlantic slave trade. Midgley explored the leading role of women in the consumer boycott of slave-grown sugar during the period and the vital role of female missionary memoirs in increasing recognition of women as missionaries.

Her subsequent research further illuminates women’s involvement in transatlantic and transnational networks of anti-slavery, feminism and social reform by comparing relationships between the abolitionist and feminist movements in Britain and the USA. It analyses the distinctive use of the woman-slave analogy in Britain compared to the US, and considers female anti-slavery as a form of early feminism. It also lays a new emphasis on the British rather than American origins of an organised transatlantic feminist movement.

Professor Midgley is currently engaged in a major new research project that reinterprets Indian, British and American debates on the ‘woman question’ in the nineteenth-century age of empire through examining an influential cross-cultural network of activists who promoted liberal religion and social reform.

The impact

In the London-based ‘Mary on the Green’ project, Midgley has played a key role in initiating a project to erect the first public memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft, the founder of modern feminism. Midgley originally co-organised of a week-long series of public commemorative events celebrating the 250th anniversary of Wollstonecraft’s birth at Newington Green Unitarian Church in 2009. The local enthusiasm generated by Midgley’s talks and pamphlets resulted in a fund-raising campaign to erect a local memorial to Wollstonecraft. The ‘Mary on the Green’ project committee was set up, and has to date raised over £20,000 and is currently beginning the process of selecting a sculptor and memorial design.

Professor Midgley is also an expert academic advisor to a women’s history group project at Tollcross Community Centre in Edinburgh that is generating public support for a permanent memorial to three local women who played leading roles in the anti-slavery and feminist movements. She was involved in the successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for their project. She initially gave a talk to its members to inform their studies, and later gave another talk at a public launch event for the group’s project. Attendees at the launch included activists from Edinburgh-based and Scottish women’s organisations, local school teachers and pupils, and various Scottish women’s history groups including Women’s History Scotland. Her involvement in the project is ongoing.

In May 2012, Professor Midgley was an invited academic expert participant in a one-day seminar on ‘Women in England’, part of a series of seminars through which English Heritage consulted about the significance of the historic environment for groups currently under-represented in its work. Her contributions referenced her research to speak of the need for English Heritage to take account of women’s distinctive, but often invisible, relationship with both private and public spaces when protecting and presenting heritage sites. Her recorded suggestions were included in the report presented to the organisation’s implementation board and published on its website. As a result of her participation in this consultation, Professor Midgley has been placed on English Heritage’s advisory list of experts, consulted annually.

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