Henrietta Müller (1845/6-1906)

Born: Frances Henrietta Müller

Sector: Media (Publishing)

Henrietta Müller was a prominent feminist in the 1870s and 1880s, who used her wealth and education to champion a wide range of campaigns on behalf of less privileged girls and women. This culminated in her setting up the Women’s Penny Paper in October 1888 to raise the profile of feminist issues and the women who were leading them.

Henrietta was born in Valparaiso, Chile, to a German father and a Chilean mother. The middle daughter of three, she was educated by governesses. By 1861, she and her sisters were living in the UK, first in Hastings and later in Hertfordshire. The family was clearly wealthy: her father was a merchant who owned 120 acres of land and was a JP. Her uncompromising feminist stance seems to have been borne from a very difficult relationship with her father. In a letter she wrote when she was 40, she claimed that her rebellious attitude was:

“justified by the slavery of women + by the fact that our danger lies in too ready submission to the claims of men however unjustifiable they may be.. Resistance to injustice, it appears to me, is as sacred a duty as doing justice to others, because, in yielding to injustice we practically set a premium upon tyranny…Perhaps my spirit of resistance is still further justified by the fact that, when I was a very frightened, weak + timid girl, living under the authority of one of the most tyrannical, domineering and powerful fathers, I rebelled against him + against all the army of indignant relations, who thought it was to my welfare that I should be crushed.  In doing so I risked the loss of everything that I possessed; home, affection, means, + social reputation. The price that I paid was a fearful one but I would pay it over again, + more too, for the priceless possession of the most priceless gift of humanity, the liberty to do what I believe to be right.”

Henrietta Muller (1845/6-1906) with her adopted son.
Henrietta Muller with her adopted son
From theWomen’s Signal’ 18/8/1895
With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

Exactly what ‘fearful price’ Henrietta paid is unclear: she certainly remained close to both her mother and sister and by the time she went to Girton College, Cambridge in 1873, at the age of 28, she was independently wealthy and able to set her own agenda. It was through the principal, Emily Davies, that she was introduced to a network of women who were driving change in business and she was one of Emma Paterson’s backers when she set up the Women’s Printing Society in 1876.

Once she graduated, Henrietta became involved in education and was elected to the Board of several large schools in south London. Encouraged by Millicent Fawcett, she stood for election to the Lambeth division of the London School Board (LSB) in November 1879. This was one of the larger LSB areas and she invested both time and money in her campaign, speaking at evening meetings in Walworth, Clapham, Wandsworth, Camberwell and Kennington. She got over 18,000 votes, the most votes of any one standing across all boroughs, and was later recognised as one of the hardest workers on the London School Board.

In 1882, she established the Society for the Return of Women as Poor Law Guardians and presided over the meeting to inaugurate a committee to oversee the building of accommodation for women studying at UCL and the London School of Medicine for Women, College Hall, a campaign in which one of Emma Paterson’s other backers, Annie Browne, was also heavily involved.

Unsurprisingly, Henrietta was also active in the suffrage movement. She decided not to pay her taxes as a form of protest and while not the first woman to do this, because of her role on the LSB, her refusal attracted a lot of attention. On 4th July 1884, ‘a remarkable occurrence’ took place at her home, 58 Cadogan Place, when ‘heavily-booted bailiffs’ turned up. Inside her home, cabinets and tables were stripped of their contents and the bailiffs took away a ‘vanload of her household effects’; outside, fifty or so of Henrietta’s feminist friends, including Caroline Biggs and Charlotte Babb gathered on the pavement and later squashed into her somewhat emptier drawing room to speak in support. This was definitely a gesture rather than creating real hardship – friends re-purchased her possessions – but it was a powerful one and her cry that ‘representation and taxation go together’ would be taken up again, accompanied by very similar tactics, by the Women’s Tax Resistance League twenty-five years later.

In 1884, Henrietta also published an essay ‘On the Future of Single Women’ which she dedicated to ‘All Happy Spinsters’ and where she referenced Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, recently translated into English by her friend Frances Lord. She challenged the idea that women ultimately realised their full potential only by being a wife and mother and tried to re-position remaining single as a positive choice that freed women from the tyranny of marriage. She continued:

“The unmarried woman of to-day is a new, sturdy, and vigorous type…She is intellectually trained and socially successful, her physique is as sound and vigorous as her mind. ..Her tastes are various and refined, her opportunities for cultivating them practically unlimited. Whether it be in the direction of society, or art, or travel, or philanthropy, or public duty, or a combination of many of these, there is nothing to let or hinder her from following her own will, there are no bonds but such as bear no yoke, no restrictions but those of her own conscience and right principle. She feels that it is in no sense her duty, since it is not her choice, to devote herself to securing the happiness of some one individual, nor to add to our difficulties of over-population.”

Happy and free, a single woman could then apply herself to whatever she wanted, living a full and rich ‘industrial, public or professional life’, which in Henrietta’s view would probably mean working to improve the lot of other women and children. These were radical ideas and ensured that Henrietta was on the radar of other progressive thinkers.

One was Karl Pearson, who at around this time decided he wanted to set up a club where men and women could could come together to present papers on and talk about sex, gender roles and societal norms. As he and Elizabeth Cobb cast around for women who they thought would be able to contribute, Henrietta’s name was obviously discussed and she was invited to participate despite concerns about her being a ‘man-hater’. In fact, Henrietta was not above playing the damsel in potential distress when it suited her. In one letter to Karl Pearson, written in a firm hand, still conveying a sense of energy read over a hundred years later, she asked him to accompany her to a meeting where she would be speaking because ‘it is likely to be disorderly and I should feel more comfortable if a big stick and a strong arm were not far off!”

Letter from Henrietta Muller to Karl Pearson
Letter from Henrietta Muller to Karl Pearson, 1885, Courtesy of Pearson Collection, UCL Archives

In late 1885, Henrietta failed to be re-elected for a third term on the London School Board and was deeply disappointed. She left the country for a six-month break, writing to Pearson in December 1885, ‘I am not really out of health but I am out of hope and that is worse’. She travelled to Italy and then spent the winter in rarely-visited parts of Egypt, travelling back to London via Corfu and Athens.

By May 1886, she was back in London and back on form. She was formally elected as a member of the Men’s and Women’s Club and was a regular attendee for the next two years, hosting some of the meetings and occasionally bringing as guests her mother and her younger sister, Eva McLaren (1852/3-1921), who had also embraced feminism and Isabel Cooper-Oakley, who had studied at Girton a decade after Henrietta. In April, 1887, she gave four lectures at the Westminster Town Hall ‘to women only’ on ‘Women and the Bible’, ‘The Dominion of Man’, ‘Real Women’ and ‘Ideal Women’. With her busy agenda, she needed some help and took on Helen Clegg to help her manage the ticket sales.

The minutes of the Club at their meeting on the 14th March 1888 noted that ‘Ms Muller has retired’. She laid out her reasons to Pearson in a letter:

I am very sorry to have left the club but it had become worse than useless to me. I hope to start a rival club for discussing the same class of subjects but men will not be admitted. You will say ‘this is prejudice’. I will not stop to deny it.  I will merely say that in my club every woman shall find a voice + shall learn how to use it; it matters not in the first instance what her opinion may be, it does matter very much that she should learn to express it freely and fearlessly. At your last meeting the exhibition was piteous.  While one or two men laid down their own views… not one of the women who differed..opened her lips. It was the same old story of the man laying down the law to the woman + not coming to recognise that she has a voice + the woman resenting in silence + submitting in silence.  Even when one who is bold opens her lips, they feebly admire her courage but do not venture to follow her example because the enemy is present. I am quite convinced that women must learn to hear their own voices… before they can enter into a debate with or against men… My pen has run away with me!  

There is no evidence that Henrietta set up her own club but she found a different way of giving women more of a voice. Two years earlier, in October 1886, Henrietta had written to Pearson: ‘I am thinking of starting a paper to give news about women + women’s work + to give a voice to their opinions + wants – what do you think of the proposal? Is journalism necessarily contemptible?’ In October 1888, she launched the Women’s Penny Paper, which she edited under the name of Helena B Temple. It pronounced itself to be ‘The Only Newspaper Conducted, Written, Published and Printed by Women’ and appeared weekly.

Henrietta wanted to appeal to the ‘thinking woman’ and create a community of activists by stimulating discussion on wide-ranging issues: ‘We look to reproducing the ideas of the day in their newest and freshest form, to creating a newspaper which shall reflect the thoughts of the best women upon all the subjects that occupy their minds.’ She was a strong believer in the sisterhood and that women should be helping one another, but she welcomed male supporters and while the newspaper was female-led, some of the newspaper interviews were done by men.

Her venture was purposeful but it was also commercial, generating revenue from advertising and subscription revenues. It was stocked by organisations such as the Young Women’s Guilds in their reading rooms and the Rational Dress Society, the Women’s Printing Society and corset makers all used it to attract business. By 1890, three of the twelve pages were dedicated to advertising.

Example of a page of advertising from the Women's Penny Paper, owned and edited by Henrietta Muller.

In each issue Henrietta included a Victorian version of today’s celebrity interview, profiling a woman who was active in the feminist cause, often a campaigner, businesswoman or philanthropist. Among the first to be featured were Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Louise Jopling, Amy Bell and Emily Massingberd. This was part of a wider effort by women in journalism to present the New Woman not as a freak but as a respectable woman who was improving and reforming British society for the benefit of all. Henrietta described the interview column as ‘one of the strongest weapons which the women’s party possesses’.

In March 1890, Henrietta created a storm when she applied for ‘accommodation in the press gallery of the House of Commons.’ The resulting debate was picked up in over 25 papers and periodicals. The reasons for opposition were varied and predictable: women should stick to covering social affairs; having women in the press gallery would be distracting; they would need special attention which would be disruptive; and it created an opportunity for newspapers to use cheaper labour which threatened men’s salaries. Despite having some supporters, Henrietta lost her battle.

In January 1891, she changed the title to the Women’s Herald, but ill-health forced her to sell it the following year and its allegiance shifted to the Women’s Liberal Foundation. Henrietta drifted away from the feminist movement, becoming ever-more interested in theosophism, a religious movement founded in 1875 and based on Hindu philosophies of karma and reincarnation. In 1893, she travelled with Annie Besant to the Chicago World Fair as a representative. In 1895, she travelled to India as a delegate to the Indian National Congress and adopted a son, Akrhaya Kumara Gosha-Muller, who was studying at Cambridge and was destined for the bar, though little is known of him. She remained in India for around four years and spent a period of time studying Hinduism as well as involving herself in bettering the position of women, only to abandon both the religion and the country at the turn of the century.

Henrietta died on the 4th January 1906 in Washington D.C. She may be largely forgotten now, her many contributions to the advancement of women undervalued, but those who knew her understood how special she was. In its obituary, the Westminster Gazette wrote: “Henrietta Müller was one of those who sought and saw and brought to light the good, helping in her day and generation to make men and women alike realise themselves and become doers of the work.”

Sources include: Pearson Papers, UCL Archives

Graphic 6/12/1879; Buchan Observer and East Aberdeenshire Advertiser 4/7/1884; St James’s Gazette 12/7/1884; Pall Mall Gazette 21/04/1886; Morning Post 18/4/1887; Women’s Penny Paper 27/10/1888; 29/3/1890; Woman’s Signal 16/3/1899; Westminster Gazette 17/1/1906; South London Press 27/01/1906

‘Representing the Professional Woman: The Celebrity Interviewing of Sarah Tooley’ by Terri Doughty in Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siècle: Making a Name for Herself ed. F Elizabeth Gray (2012); Science, Feminism and Romance: The Men and Women’s Club 1885-1889 by Judith Walkowitz (1986) History Workshop No 21 P.36-59; ‘News: Gender and Journalism in Modern Britain’ by Michelle Elizabeth Tusan (2005) Poetry and Politics in “The Women’s Penny Paper/Woman’s Herald”, 1888-1893: “One swift, bright fore-gleam of celestial day” by Elizabeth Gray (2012) in Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 45, No. 2 p.134-157

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