Harriet Law was an ardent supporter of and campaigner for secularism. She was one of the speakers at the opening of Secular Hall in 1881.
Mrs Harriet Law was born Harriet Teresa Frost in Essex in 1831, had a Baptist upbringing and became a Sunday School teacher. When G. J. Holyoake spoke at Philpot Street, Whitechapel, in the East End of London, she tried to argue against him in defence of Christianity, but in 1855 "saw the light of reason" and became one of his most active supporters.
In 1859 she became a salaried lecturer for the secular movement. Lectures she gave at Hebden Bridge in 1870, on Martin Luther and Tom Paine, were noisily disrupted by local christians and she was punched in the face while making her way back to the hall through a large mob. When she lectured in Woolwich on "How I became a freethinker and why I remain one", an outraged writer in the local press attacked it as "the infidel lecture".
She edited the Secular Chronicle (1870? - 79) in which she included profiles of freethinking women, such as Mary Wollstonecraft. She even considered the biblical Eve to be a freethought heroine! - For encouraging Adam to partake of the tree of knowledge.
In 1866 she stood as candidate for president of the newly formed NSS against Bradlaugh, Robert Cooper and John Watts. However, because of her involvement in socialism and trades unionism she was edged out of influence in the NSS by Bradlaugh.
She was mandated to represent "The Central Section of Working Women" at the 5th Congress of the International Working Men's Association at the Hague 1872. She is listed as the only woman on the General Council 1869 and 1878. Harriet Law's proposition moved at the General Council meeting of August 17, 1869 would have meant the transfer of the Church's property and income to schools.
In 1877, following disagreements with Bradlaugh and Besant, she, Holyoake and Watts left the NSS and set up the British Secular Union which lasted to 1884.
Harriet Law was one of the speakers, alongside Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, G. J. Holyoake and others, at the opening of Leicester's Secular Hall on 6th March 1881.
Karl Marx records Harriet Law's involvement in the General Council of the International Workingmen's Association, on the 'Church Budget', and, as a member of the General Council, she was a signatory to Marx's Address to the National Labor Union of the United States (both 1869).
Harriet Law's (among others) Mandate from the Central Section of Working Women to represent them at the General Congress at The Hague (1872). This lists the demands for women workers.
Harriet Law is included in the list of members of the General Council of the International Society in an Interview with Karl Marx by H., of the Chicago Tribune on January 5, 1879.
Harriet Law now features on Wikipedia.
The date of birth and other information in the first three paragraphs above are based on an excellent lecture by Laura Schwartz - See below
Replicated with the kind permission of Dr. Laura Schwartz and Conway Hall Ethical Society.
The nineteenth-century Secularist movement is generally perceived as a largely masculine affair. Secularism did boast a small but active number of prominent female advocates and, even more strikingly, the movement also generated a distinctive brand of Freethinking or 'Infidel Feminism'. How are we to understand the emergence of such strong support for women's rights within a male-dominated, and potentially 'macho', movement?
I will focus on the figure of Harriet Law -- the infamous Secularist lecturer and journalist who began her career in the 1850s when the Secular societies were newly emerging, and retired in 1879 when the movement was nearing the height of its powers. Women made up only about 12% of membership of the Secular societies. And yet, formally at least, Secularist structures were uncommonly open to female participation. Both men and women were permitted to run for executive positions in the National Secular Society, the British Secular Union and the Freethought League.
For example, Harriet Law was president of the Freethought League in 1869 and was repeatedly elected to (but declined) the position of vice president of the National Secular Society. Annie Besant was elected to this position in 1875. At a local level, Secular societies were relatively unusual in that their meetings, lectures and branch membership were open to women. My book, Infidel Feminism, looks at women who gained prominence within nineteenth and early twentieth-century Secularism as journalists, authors, and, perhaps most interestingly, as public lecturers.
Freethought had been home to a current of radical thinking on women's position in society since the early 1800s. The Freethinker and radical bookseller Richard Carlile published Every Woman's Book, Or What is Love? in 1826, which provided information about birth control and gave a positive portrayal of female sexuality.
In the 1830s and 40s, Owenite Freethought condemned the institution of marriage and the oppression of women in the capitalist system. These pro- woman arguments continued in the newly formed Secularist societies from the 1850s onwards. By the 1880s all but one of the Secularist leaders (William Stuart Ross) supported the enfranchisement of women and the main Freethought journals, such as The Reasoner, The National Reformer and the Secular Chronicle , often contained calls for an end to women's oppression the cause of which they, unsurprisingly, attributed to religion... In 1877 Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant deliberately engineered their own prosecution for the publication of a birth control pamphlet, in order to highlight the need for free access to such information.
Harriet Law, before her conversion to an atheist brand of Freethought, had been a pious member of the Baptist church. Harriet Law was born in Ongar, Essex in 1831, the daughter of a farmer. She was moderately educated but impecunious. On arriving in London she began teaching in a Sunday school. As a pious member of the Baptist Church, she attended the Philpot Street Secularist Hall where the leading Freethinker, George Jacob Holyoake, was giving his new vision for a national network of Secular societies.
As usual, the speaker's remarks were followed by open discussion amongst the audience, during which the young Harriet Law rose from her seat and forcibly challenged Holyoake with 'Christian arguments'. Holyoake, impressed by her rhetorical skill, argued back. Over the next few months Law attended many meetings of this kind, where she debated with the speaker and tried to defend Christianity in the face of Secularist criticism. She became increasingly persuaded, however, of the arguments put forward by the Freethinkers and, in 1855, she converted to their cause.
Harriet Law's 'path to atheism' may have been dramatic, but it was not all that unusual. Almost all the women who appear in my book Infidel Feminism had, prior to their conversion to Freethought, been devoted adherents of various Christian churches. (In fact, Harriet Law often modelled herself on an earlier Freethinking feminist who had been involved in the Owenite Socialist movement. Emma Martin had been a strict Baptist and pillar of her chapel in Bristol before converting to atheism and socialism, leaving her dreary husband and running off to London with her four daughters to join the struggle. This fusion of a rejection of a religion with a rejection of patriarchal authority in one's personal life is a common motif in the lives of many of these 'infidel feminists'. Annie Besant, for example, also left her husband (a vicar) when she threw off her religious faith. Moreover, other male leading Freethinkers had also come to Secularism after daring while still Christians to debate the enemy infidel.
Reference to one's former piety became a very useful rhetorical tool for many Freethinkers, especially the women. It was a way for Freethinking feminists, particularly vulnerable to accusations of immorality, that they had been nice respectable girls all their lives, and had only abandoned Christianity because they found it morally untenable. Many of them recalled that their loss of faith had been a painful experience, entailing loss of community and social status as well as emotional sustenance; they had only come to reject religion because their intellectual honesty compelled them to do so. At the height of her fame as a Secularist, Harriet Law referred to her religious past as evidence of the fact that even the most devoted of Christians could be made to see the light of reason.
Harriet Law began lecturing in 1859, while her husband, another Secularist, remained at home and cared for the children. Her lectures over two decades spanned a wide range of political, feminist and anti-religious topics. As a salaried lecturer for the Secularist movement, no restrictions appear to have been placed on Harriet's activities on account of her sex. Like her male counterparts she travelled the country, speaking in front of mixed sex audiences, answering heckles and questions from the audience and joining in the often rowdy debates that followed her speeches. Reports of her lecture tours can be found in Secularist journals such as the National Reformer and the Reasoner, and from these it does not appear that Law's excited and opinionated audiences moderated their behaviour simply because there was a woman on the platform. Law also took part in numerous one-to-one debates with her Christian opponents.
These formed a stock part of the Secularist repertoire and were often the most uproarious of Freethought meetings, always with the potential to turn violent. In 1870 Law was in the middle of delivering a lecture on 'Martin Luther and Thomas Paine' when small pebbles began to be thrown at the windows of the hall by residents of Hebden Bridge who had gathered outside. At first Law ignored this disturbance and continued to lecture, but soon the beams supporting the building began to be hammered 'by some person with a huge stone' and the vibrations almost caused the large clock to fall off the wall onto the heads of the audience. Law, however, persevered with her lecture and managed to finish it. But 'upon the exit of the lecturer, she was literally mobbed.' She just managed to reach her lodgings for the night unharmed, but on the following day, when she returned to give a second lecture, 'the crowd closed in upon her, notwithstanding the efforts of the police, and the lady received a blow in the right eye struck by a man's fist, causing her great pain for a length of time...the mob was estimated at 2,000.'
Although it was not unheard of, it was certainly unusual for women during this period to speak on rowdy public platforms and to engage in theological disputation. The nineteenth century was marked by a variety of attempts by women to force their way into the public realm. Harriet Law was part of a small group of female public speakers making their way onto platforms in organisations such as the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science and even sometimes in the Christian churches as 'lady preachers'. However, Freethinking feminists were in the vanguard of those women seeking to push back restrictions to their entry into the public sphere. In particular they challenged Christian arguments that had been used to exclude women from the public platform. Harriet Law claimed that her first doubts regarding her religious faith had been prompted by St. Paul's decree that women should keep silent in the churches, and she continually contrasted the silence imposed on Christian women with the freedom and equality of female Freethinkers.
When, in 1876 Law accompanied Bradlaugh to debate the leader of the Christian Evidence Society, Bishop Cloughton, the Bishop complained that 'although he came prepared to listen to men who challenged the truths of the gospel, he never imagined that he should be called upon to meet a woman who had the effrontery to do the same.' Harriet Law retorted that of course the Christian Evidence Society would never have allowed women to attend their annual meeting, from fear that they might use their 'brains and tongues' to 'disconcert' the Episcopal authority. Freethinking women were thus able to use Secularist opposition to religion to legitimate their otherwise contentious public role as lecturers for the movement; the Freethought commitment to free inquiry, freedom of speech and the free dissemination of knowledge opened up spaces for women to participate more fully in the public and intellectual life of the movement.
Law assumed editorship of the leading Secularist periodical, Secular Chronicle , in 1876. She immediately introduced a 'Ladies Page' and made 'no apology' for employing space in the journal to discuss the crucially important question of female emancipation. Over the next three years, women's rights formed one of the most frequently discussed issues in the journal. Like the National Reformer and the Reasoner, Harriet Law's Secular Chronicle regularly reported on the meetings and progress of the various campaigns for female education and women's suffrage, issues on which Harriet Law's daughter -- Harriet Teresa Law -- also wrote articles.
The views expressed were firmly to the left of the contemporary mainstream women's rights movement. For example, Law's atheism allowed her to reject the notion of God-given gender roles or differences between men and women. She thus published an article which claimed that it had not 'as yet been proved that a man differs from a woman' and as a result women should have full rights and duties in the governance of the polity -- including the vote and the right to sit in parliament. In discussing whether men and woman had natural and different talents, the author denied that any skill was definitely the domain of a particular sex. Even weaving and knitting, generally seen as something women had a special talent for, were acquired habits. The article concluded with what it claimed were the words of Plato: 'There is no function, my friend, among the entire members of our state that is peculiar to woman...but natural talents are indiscriminately diffused through both, and the woman naturally shares in all offices the same as man.'
Harriet Law was not afraid of making these arguments with great force and demanding that women's rights needed to be part and parcel of the wider struggle for democracy. In the agitation leading up to the 1868 Reform Act, which eventually enfranchised a significant proportion (though certainly not all) working-class men, Harriet supported the enfranchisement of all men and women. In this she even out-radicalised her own husband, who believed that people needed a certain level of education to be eligible to vote. Harriet dismissed such caution. In 1866, when protesters in support of the Reform Bill marched to Hyde Park in the face of violent police opposition, Harriet Law was carried by the crowd from place to place, and asked to give her speech on the enfranchisement of women.
In the Secular ChronicleHarriet Law also presented distinctively 'infidel feminist' arguments. Like others in the Secularist movement, Harriet Law saw religion as the root of all women's oppression. The historical subordination of women had been enshrined within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and it was argued that the rise of Christianity had led to a decline in women's status across early societies. In the first month of her editorship of the Secular Chronicle , Harriet wrote a long article on this subject, showing that 'the Bible does assign women a distinct, and what is worse, a subordinate sphere, rendering her subject to man in nearly every relationship of her life.' She listed the many passages in scripture in which woman was assigned a passive and subordinate role to her husband, father and brother, a trend which began with Genesis when Adam was told to 'rule over' Eve. Women were subject to the lust and violence of 'king, priest, soldier and legislator' ; they were afforded power and position in neither the church nor the state. She wrote that woman's 'only representative act, that of plucking the fruit of the tree “of the knowledge of good and evil”, is described as bringing disease, sin and death upon all; and eternal torment upon the great majority of mankind.' Instead, Law sought to reclaim Eve as a Freethinking feminist heroine, for in disobeying God and eating from the tree of knowledge, Eve was in actual fact displaying those virtues that the Secularists valued foremost - a desire for learning and an unwillingness to give into to those who wished to restrict freedom of inquiry. Harriet Law therefore argued that 'instead of cursing, we ought to reverence...[Eve's] memory, as her partaking of the forbidden fruit was calculated to remove the evil of ignorance, which must be admitted as the greatest of all evils.'
Harriet Law resigned her editorship of the Secular Chronicle in 1879. As a business venture it had failed, and lost Law a considerable amount of money. Shortly after this, Law retired from her public Secularist activities though she remained a Freethinker until her death. Her early retirement may have been due to ill-health (she suffered from bronchitis) but was also partly a result of a having been gradually edged out of the movement by Charles Bradlaugh. As well as a committed feminist, Harriet Law was also a socialist and in 1867 had been elected to Karl Marx's First International. Bradlaugh's well-known hostility to socialism no doubt added to the already strained relations between him and Law, due also to Law's criticism of Bradlaugh's authoritarian style of leadership.
Harriet Law's deconstruction of Judeo-Christian Scripture exposing it as an inherently patriarchal text; her historical analysis of women's oppression, which she traced back to the rise of monotheistic religion; and her active interest in a variety of contemporary women's rights causes, were typical of the movement as a whole. The contribution of Freethinking feminism to the wider nineteenth- century women's movement needs, I believe, to be noted. Ultimately, I would argue that although Freethought did not inevitably lead to feminism, the act of renouncing religion (itself an inherently subversive act) called into question the underlying assumptions of Victorian thinking on gender. Freethought enabled women such as Harriet Law to develop a radically different vision of women's role in society.
Page updated 4/7/2020.