Shelley Gulick (1876-1927)

Born: Rasel Bernfeld. Also known as Rashel / Raschel Gulich

Sector: Financial Services (Insurance)

In 1914, the suffrage newspapers – Vote, Votes for Women, International Woman Suffrage News and The Common Cause – started carrying this advertisement:

The Common Cause 31/7/1914
Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive.

This innovative policy was the culmination of Shelley Gulick’s efforts to open up the insurance market and insurance products to women. I have not yet been able to find a photograph of Shelley and her name has been all but forgotten but when she died in 1927, she was praised as ‘a woman who took her feminism into her everyday life and trod out new paths for women in the business world’, specifically in the area of insurance.

Born in Iasi, Romania in 1876 to a Romanian mother, Anna, and an Austrian father, Samuel, Shelley was the second of four daughters. The whole family emigrated to Manchester in 1881 and become British citizens in 1883. The family’s second house was at 262 Plymouth Grove, down the road from the house where Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) lived for the last fifteen years of her life. Samuel was a merchant in the textile business and since Shelley’s older sister, Tone, was still in school at the age of 17, it can be surmised that all four girls had a good level of education.

Over the years her name became more anglicised. In the census returns she appears first as Rashel and later as Raschel but in newspaper stories she is always called Shelley. In 1900, she married Edward Gulick (originally spelt Gulich) in Manchester. He was ten years older than her, a former pupil at Winchester College and now an electrical engineer. Shelley was involved in the women’s suffrage movement as a member of the NUWSS in 1901 when she took a job at the Royal Exchange. She wanted to commit more time to the Cause but the demands of her job made this difficult and she comforted herself with the thought that ‘anything which opens the door for women helps and if only I can make my new job a success it will open a door.’

In 1909, she took a break from paid employment to play a major part in the organisation of International Suffrage Week, which ran from 25th April to 1st May and incorporated the Congress of the International Women Suffrage Alliance. Women came from 21 countries, all the world to speak at meetings. Shelley worked closely with Pippa Strachey (1872-1968), secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, which organised a Great Mass Meeting and Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 27th April. The number of participants was limited by the venue so 1,000 women from seventy trades and professions marched from Eaton Square to the Royal Albert Hall.

Pottery Workers, captured by Christina Broom

They bore embroidered banners and carried the tools of their trade. Pit brow girls from Wigan, chainmakers from Cradley Heath, spinners and weavers from Lancashire, straw hat makers, furriers, dressmakers, milliners, actresses, musicians and doctors all processed along streets lit by hundreds of red and blue lanterns and lined by thousands of spectators.

Two months later, in July 1909, Shelley started working for Commercial Union Assurance Company, now part of Aviva Plc. She was keen to ensure that women were exploring all the opportunities they had in the world of work and had provided for their retirement. In her first year she developed a pension scheme for professional women, eligible to all women aged 20 or over and she was made an Inspector of Agents, where her role was to find and oversee other insurance agents, a job for which she felt women were ideally suited.

South London Hospital for Women
While there were very few women in insurance, over the last fifty years, many had followed the medical trail blazed by Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. By 1912 more than 700 women were qualified doctors but they were struggling to land senior hospital positions. Two surgeons, Maud Chadburn and Eleanor Davies-Colley decided to set up a women’s hospital in south London. Following the model of the New Hospital for Women in Euston, it would ensure that the needs of women patients were better met and give women who wanted a career in medicine more chance of reaching their full potential. All the staff were women – nurses, dispensary staff, doctors – and the hospital retained this policy until its closure in 1984. The first part of the South London Hospital to open was an outpatient department on Newington Causeway and the in-patient hospital eventually opened on Clapham Common in 1916.

South London Hospital for Women, Clapham Common. Source: Wellcome Collection

A special feature of this hospital was to be the provision of private wards for women of ‘small means’. In April 1913, Shelley set up the Professional and Business Women’s League, later called the Women’s Hospital League to fund one or more beds in these private wards for its members. The League was designed specifically to appeal to women living alone in rooms, or a flat or in one of the residential clubs who were left with little support if they fell ill. The president was Viscountess St. Cyres, born Dorothy Morrison (1872-1936), whose grandfather, James, made a fortune in textiles and for a period of time owned Basildon Park. The secretary was Mildred Ransom, who ran her own secretarial business on the Edgware Road. The Association of University Women Teachers and other women’s societies also supported beds in these wards.

Shelley continued to campaign for women’s suffrage and in 1913 helped make arrangements for women to travel out to the International Congress in Budapest via another Congress in Vienna. Thomas Cook put together a travel package which included free transportation of 56 lbs of luggage per person. In the days of long skirts and obligatory hats, travelling light was really not an option..

International Woman Suffrage Alliance, Congress, Budapest, Members in front of a restaurant (1913)
Source: Manuscripts and Archives Department, New York Public Library

In 1914, a couple of newspapers ran a story that Mrs Shelley Gulick has been appointed by Messrs Leslie and Godwin, one of the largest and best known firms of insurance brokers in London, to open and conduct a special department for them. However, it seems that in the end Shelley opted to set up her own business and in June her advertisement started to appear. Her new policy received widespread coverage: ‘Hitherto companies have fought shy of offering a [sickness and accident] policy..on the grounds that the claims arising from women would be so many that they would swamp the premiums’ reported the International Woman Suffrage News.

More clarification came from Votes for Women: ‘the reason offered by the insurance companies has been that the diseases of women were too wide and vague to admit of the necessary verification’. It went on to say: ‘It is a sign of the times that one of the great insurance institutions has determined to cater for the professional and business woman.. Among those who will be entitled to benefit under it are women doctors, nurses, journalists, dress-makers, milliners, bookbinders, teachers, masseuses, gymnasts, pharmacists, secretaries, actresses, typists and others’, a list which in itself gives a fascinating insight into the key areas of women’s employment before the First World War.

At this point, Shelley’s name disappears from the records. There is no further mention of her in the suffrage papers between 1914 and her death on 26th February 1927, by which time she and her husband had moved down to South Harewood, near Andover. In her obituary in The Woman’s Leader, Mildred Ransom remembered her friend and collaborator: ‘She had all the characteristics essential for pioneer work. Her keenness and enthusiasm were evident to all and her grip of details, happy disposition and sense of humour not only secured her success from a business point of view but endeared her to all with whom she came in contact.’


Sources: The Globe 28/4/1909; Common Cause 12/5/1910; North Eastern Daily Gazette 15/5/1914; Manchester Courier 29/5/1914; International Woman Suffrage News 1/7/1914; Votes for Women 10/7/1914; The Woman’s Leader 25/3/1927; 30/12/1927;

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