All writing © 2009-2015 by Colin Salter unless indicated otherwise. All rights reserved.
More information at

Saturday, 22 June 2013


As I wrote in my last post here, Mary Carpenter and Deborah Castle grew up together in Bristol and shared a zeal for social and educational reform, influenced in large part by the teaching of Mary’s father the Unitarian minister Dr Lant Carpenter.

In 1869 the Misses Carpenter and Castle shared a stage in Bristol at the first Ladies Conference of the Social Science Association. Their contributions illustrated tensions within the Women’s Movement – should women simply take a greater public part in traditional feminine philanthropic “caring” roles? or should they campaign for greater rights?

Mary Carpenter (1807-1877) in c1870

Author Lawrence Goldman in Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain describes events at the conference:
On 29th September Mary Carpenter, in the chair, told the congress was told that “they would keep clear of public or political subjects, and of what were called ‘women’s rights’, or their fancied wrongs,” adding later in the proceedings, “ladies should work modestly and quietly, and not seek after more publicity than is necessary to attain their object. She hoped that they would avoid political or religious discussions, women’s suffrage, or ‘rights’ … they were much safer in keeping to women’s work.”

The Ladies Conference met again on the following day, this time under the presidency of Lady Bowring, and it debated its raison d’être: “the question was whether that basis should be extended to the consideration of all subjects whatever in which women are interested, such as are treated of by the Congress in general, or whether it should be confined to the consideration of benevolent efforts and works by women, discarding political subjects such as Women’s Suffrage, the Married Women’s Property Bill, etc.”

Apparently “many ladies took a part in the discussion” and the majority favoured “the first proposition”, or what might be termed the political option. Miss Carpenter’s views had been overturned.

Lady Deborah Bowring née Castle (1816-1902) in 1864

It’s always difficult when friends disagree. At the same conference the following year, Mary did not attend; but Deborah spoke on topics ranging from the suffrage and married women’s property to education – all of them subjects dear to Mary and her inspiration, the Hindu social reformer Ram Mohan Roy. Roy was visiting Deborah’s cousin Catherine Castle (1812-1834) when Mary met him in 1833, and it is highly likely that Deborah met him too and was influenced by his convictions.

It could be argued that Deborah embodied both the philanthropic and political aims of the Women's Movement. Throughout her married life with Sir John in Exeter, and after his death, she was an active supporter of the local hospital and museum, and of education for girls in the city. And in 1871 Deborah became a vice-president of the Bristol and West of England Society for Women's Suffrage, an office which she held until her death. She has been described as an apt and dignified speaker who blended a good deal of humour with her shrewd and graceful remarks. Deborah made her last speech in support of the cause in May 1897.

At that 1870 Social Science Association conference Deborah touched on the divisions between politics and philanthropy in the Women’s Movement which the previous year’s conference had highlighted:
I do not doubt that there are those present who do not consider that purely benevolent action in the political area can be confined within such, or indeed, any limits, but would deem it needful to consider that it is ultimately associated with the attainment of the social advancement and proper position of women, and more especially that she should enjoy that absolute political equality with those of the other sex. Looking calmly and dispassionately at these so-called women’s rights questions, I cannot but imagine that a time will come when the justice of these claims will be recognised.

As Goldman points out, Deborah’s convoluted language suggests the delicacy with which she had to approach the subject. But although she added that the attainment of that equality “must necessarily be distant,” she is quite clear that absolute political equality is the goal. A hundred and forty three years later, I wonder how she thinks we’re doing.

Lawrence Goldman’s Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2002), from which much of my information about Deborah Bowring’s work comes


  1. Miss Deborah is a great role model for the women of today. Another thing's that great about her is that she embodies two different sides of the movement that deserve focus. This prompted me to think that every political movement should be tempered and enhanced by altruistic expression. Thank you for sharing this very informative two-part post!

    Christian Pearson @ League of Women Voters

  2. Thank you - I'm flattered by your comments. She was a tremedous woman, as the other stories about her in my blog confirm. Great strength of character. I'm lucky to have some of her letters, and I wish I had a portrait too!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...