Sisters, doing it for themselves

Women have always been good at coming together to get things done. Here we look at some of the groups and networks in which women featured elsewhere in this blog played a role and were significant in advancing women’s employment opportunities.

One of the first and most significant was the Langham Place Group. This influential network developed in the latter part of the 1850s and came about through the friendship of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925), who met in 1847. They shared a desire to abolish the barriers that stopped women being able to participate fully as citizens and denied them legal status once married. They worked on legal petitions from the 1850s onwards and in 1858, inspired by an Edinburgh publication, the Waverley Journal, on which Isa Craig (1831-1903) had worked, launched the English Woman’s Journal in London. Isa Craig moved to London to work on the new publication and in 1859 the network moved into rooms at 19 Langham Place in London.

Out of this also came the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, (‘SPEW’ – not the best acronym..). It was formally launched in June 1859, under the helm of Jessie Boucherett (1825-1905), the daughter of a Lincolnshire country squire and former high sheriff, who saw a copy of the English Woman’s Journal at a railway bookstall and, excited at its ideas, headed to London. This organisation still exists today as Futures for Women. It helped women find work by running a register of job opportunities, offering training in clerical skills, creating apprenticeship opportunities in fields previously open only to men, and spearheaded the drive for women to be admitted to the Institute of Chartered Accountants. In its first year it found jobs for 175 women, a mix of permanent and temporary positions. The great social reformer Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885) was President from its formation until his death.

Another woman who came calling was Emily Faithfull (1835-1895). Supported by Bessie Parkes and George Hastings, she set up the Victoria Printing Press in Bloomsbury in March 1860, offering employment opportunities to women in typesetting and printing for the first time. It was soon given the contract to print the English Woman’s Journal and in 1862 received a Royal Warrant.

Bessie Parkes’ cousin was Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), who travelled to the United States to become the first woman to qualify and register as a doctor. When she returned to London in 1858, Barbara Bodichon championed her, using her network to introduce her to wealthy and influential women who might be persuaded to fund a women’s hospital. In 1859, she organised a series of three lectures at Marylebone Hall where Elizabeth spoke on ‘Medicine as a Profession for the Ladies’. In the audience of her first lecture was Elizabeth Garrett (1836-1917) and at a party at Barbara’s house afterwards, registered and aspiring medics were introduced to one another. One of Elizabeth Garrett’s younger sisters was Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929) who became a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage and was introduced to a number of women in the Langham Place network by Elizabeth. Another, Agnes Garrett set up the first women-run interior design business with her cousin, Rhoda, in 1874.

Emily Davies (1830-1921), met some of the members of the Langham Place Network in 1859 and when she moved to London from Gateshead in 1862 she started writing for the English Woman’s Journal, editing it for a year. She also became secretary of the (successful) campaign to allow women to take the university admission exams. She was the co-founder of Girton College in Cambridge in 1869, helped by a huge donation from Barbara Bodichon, and from 1872 to 1875 was mistress of the college.


From the turn of the 20th century onwards, a number of networks sprung up where professional women could meet and support one another as well as progress the cause of equality for women in the workplace. These included:

The Efficiency Club for Business and Professional Women. This was founded in May 1919 though the commonly-used short form of the title, the Efficiency Club, was rather confusing as ‘efficiency’ was a generally a hot topic and there was already a movement to set up ‘efficiency clubs’ for men. It was London based, with ‘monthly lecture socials’. Individuals could apply and if accepted pay a subscription of a guinea. The honorary secretary was Mrs Lever. By November Lady Rhondda had been confirmed as President. One of its key objectives was to get women accepted into the British Chambers of Commerce.

The Soroptimists: Founded in 1921 in the United States of America, the first branch was set up in London in late 1923 by an American man, Stuart Morrow, who was sent over by the American contingent to get things moving in the UK. During the period when women featured here were members it operated on the same lines as the Rotary Club, with a network of local clubs where only one active and one associate member of each business classification could be admitted. Its chief objectives were ‘to encourage high standards in business and professional life and to promote friendship and mutual service among its members.’ The London branch got off to a flying start. Early members included Dame Sibyl Thorndike and Frances Stevenson, private secretary, lover and later wife of David Lloyd-George. It held an ‘installation banquet’ at the Criterion in February 1924 by which time it had members from nearly 100 occupations. For reasons which remain a mystery, someone thought it was a good idea to invite Lord Birkenhead who took the opportunity to remind the audience of his anti-feminist credentials. From then on there were lunch meetings weekly or fortnightly at the Criterion, where there was usually a guest speaker, sometimes a male guest, sometimes one of the women members. The network expanded across the country and a national governing body organised an annual conference where members came together. The organisation is still active today with 7000 members in the UK and over 75,000 members worldwide.

The Women’s Provisional Club (WPC): This was launched at almost exactly the same time at the Soroptimists, on 8th February 1924. It was founded by Ethel Wood with Viscountess Rhondda as the first Chair. Its objectives were to: a) encourage an foster high ethical standards in business and the professions; b) encourage and foster the ideal of service as the basis for enterprise c) quicken an interest in public welfare and to co-operate with others in civic, social and industrial developments’. It had a similar set up to the Soroptimists, meeting fortnightly at various London restaurants. It was disbanded in 1984.

In 1919, Lena Madesin Phillips founded the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in the US and in 1930 created the International Federation of Business and Professional Women which still exists. There were two associated groups in the UK. One was The National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (BPWUK) which still exists as part of the International BPW. This was formed in 1938 by Beatrice Gordon Holmes, with support from an American lawyer and member of the American division, Zonola Longstreth, who came to help get things moving. Phyllis Deakin was the honorary secretary for the first ten years.

The second associated group formed slightly earlier and was wound up in 1968. This was The British Federation of Business and Professional Women (BFBPW). It acted as an umbrella organisation, representing women’s professional and industry-specific groups. The driving forces behind its initiation were the Women’s Advertising Club of London (WACL) and the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), both of which are still active. The first chair was Caroline Haslett and the first president was Lady Astor. Other bodies involved were the Electrical Association for Women and the National Association of Women Civil Servants. It was particularly prominent during the Second World War when it pushed for the government to open up more areas of work for women, particularly in engineering, and make better use of women’s professional skills and experience. After much lobbying, led by Lady Astor, the ‘Extended Employment of Women Agreement’ was signed in May 1940. It eliminated the distinction between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ for the duration of the war and led to a rapid increase in the number of women working in war industry.

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Sources: ‘Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Artist and Rebel’ by Pam Hirsch (1998); Westminster Gazette 20/5/1919 ‘The Efficiency Club’; The Globe 23/5/1919; The Bystander 23/1/24: ‘The Soroptimists: A New Club for Women’. The Vote 22/2/1924; ‘Forgotten feminists: the Federation of British Professional and Business Women, 1933-1969’ by Linda Perriton (2007) Women’s History Review P.79-97. ‘The Womanpower Problem in Britain during the Second World War’ by Howard L Smith (1984) The Historical Journal 27:4 P.925-945

Archives of the WPC and the BFBPW are held at The Women’s Library, London School of Economics.

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