Founding mothers: Mary Ward (1851-1920)

Though never an advocate of female suffrage or broader rights for women, Mary Ward was a prime mover in the settlement movement, which placed students and others in deprived areas to teach and offer other support. Third Sector columnist Gill Taylor and her daughter Bridget look at her life

Mary Ward
Mary Ward

Mary Ward is now mostly remembered for the Mary Ward Centre, an adult education college in central London that is still active and has an associated legal centre. It was originally part of the settlement movement, which flourished between 1880 and 1920 and aimed to bridge the divide between rich and poor by "settling" students and others in deprived areas to provide education and support.

Ward was a conservative figure in many ways. She believed that women had different skills and areas of achievement from men and that national affairs were still the province of men, largely because this involved what she saw as the defence of the British Empire.

She did not support gender equality and, as president of the National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League authored An Appeal Against Female Suffrage in 1889, which gathered the signatures of 104 well-known women. She decisively lost a public debate on the subject with the leader of the suffragists, Millicent Fawcett.

But Ward did think women should be enabled to progress in society and that their proper sphere could extend beyond the home into the community. She tried to improve the lives of poor people, succeeded in advancing women’s education by helping to found the first women’s colleges and proved that a woman could move beyond the narrow gender restrictions of her time.

She was born into the intellectual aristocracy of Victorian England and inherited a sense of public responsibility, though she was never a radical. She became a well-known novelist, but – tellingly – wrote under her husband’s name, which her daughter also used.

"Mrs Humphry Ward was no democrat," her daughter wrote. "She was willing to wear herself out for Mrs Smith of Peabody Buildings and her children, but she could not believe that it would do Mrs Smith any good to become the prey of the political agitator."

In her 1914 novel Delia Blanchflower, Ward put forward the argument that winning the vote would not make any material difference to the lives of poor, working-class women, just as working men had been disillusioned by their victory in the previous century. But it is interesting that her novels contain unconventional female characters and sympathetic portrayals of suffrage campaigners.

Her strong belief in women’s education was influenced more by the Anglican Church and the rhetoric of John Ruskin than by feminist theories. She helped found the Association for the Higher Education of Women in 1878 and the first two Oxford colleges for women – Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall – were founded the following year.

Her own years of schooling were "practically wasted", she wrote: "I learnt nothing thoroughly and accurately." She also wrote fondly of the "agitations and conflict" of the 1870s, when women were fighting for a university education, but did not translate her experience into a belief in the need for universal women’s rights.

The settlements were started mostly by religious social reformers who wanted to draw attention to the strict divide between the preserves of the rich and the poor. Although they could be seen as a mere philanthropic exercise for the rich, Samuel Barnett, who helped to found Toynbee Hall in east London, emphasised their potentially reciprocal nature – that the university volunteers could learn as well as teach.

Ward set up her University Hall Settlement in 1890 to provide "improved popular teaching of the Bible and the history of religion".  But when Marchmont Hall opened up nearby, its programme of talks, debates and concerts proved – to Ward’s disappointment – more popular than her religious lectures. So in 1898 she opened the Passmore Edwards Settlement, named after the man who funded it, which combined both organisations’ activities. It was renamed the Mary Ward Settlement after her death in 1920.

She saw the settlement’s aim as to make life "rich and animated" and to "ease the burden of it". It later opened  a day school for disabled children (one of the first of its kind), a holiday club for children during the summer holidays and after-school clubs, called evening play centres, which by the 1930s numbered 40 across London.

Along with others, her settlement gave rise to many of the social policy initiatives and innovative ways of working that have improved the conditions of the most excluded members of society over the past century.

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