In the summer of 1859…
. . . the Society, which was originally entitled ‘The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women’ (SPEW) was founded. It was the brainchild of Miss Jessie Boucherett (1825-1905), the youngest daughter of the High Sheriff of Lincolnshire, Ayscoghe Boucherett. The Society continues to function to this day, although since 1926 it has been known as the Society for Promoting the Training of Women (SPTW). In January 2014 the charity changed its name again to Futures for Women (FfW).
The Society was founded to encourage women towards economic independence through employment and, to further this aim, it began to offer interest-free loans towards the cost of training – a practice which still underpins its activities today. Its extensive archive has been held in the library at Girton College, Cambridge, since 1997.
Jessie Boucherett’s wish to do something to help women was given impetus after she came across a copy of the English Woman’s Journal, which seemed to her to reflect her own aims. She was also particularly affected by an article drawing attention to the plight of the many ‘superfluous’ women in England during the mid-nineteenth century which had been published in the Edinburgh Review. Women were considered superfluous insofar as there were far more of them in the population than there were men, and therefore many thousands – particularly those from the middle classes who were prevented by social conventions from carrying out paid employment – had little hope of being supported by a husband. Unless women had fathers or brothers in a position to provide for them, they would thus be forced to find ways of earning a living. This was very difficult, as there were very few ‘respectable’ choices of remunerative employment open to ‘ladies’ – only occupations as governess, lady’s companion, or seamstress, all of which were thoroughly oversubscribed and underpaid.
An unexpected recruit to feminism
The original article from the Edinburgh Review which had so inspired Jessie Boucherett had been written by Harriet Martineau, and included the information that ‘three millions out of six of adult English-women work for subsistence, and two out of three in independence. With this new condition of affairs, new duties and new views must be accepted’. The effect on Boucherett was life-changing. She wrote later that…
at once [she] resolved to make it the business of her life to remedy or at least to alleviate the evil by helping self-dependent women, not with gifts of money, but with encouragement and training for employments suited to their capabilities
(stated in a pamphlet produced in 1879 by the Society to commemorate twenty years of its existence). Her activities from that moment turned her into what Olive Banks, the social historian, has termed ‘an unexpected recruit to feminism’ (presumably because of her ‘lady-of-the-manor’ upbringing), and one who used her considerable intelligence, as well as her wealth, to help change women’s lives.
After Boucherett had introduced herself to the editorial team of the English Woman’s Journal and had met the other ‘ladies of Langham Place’, she was joined by one of them, Adelaide Procter, in gathering support for her venture, which was to set up what quickly became the SPEW. At this time a ‘lady’ lost caste who did anything to earn money, so as well as attempting to provide new ways in which such women could be employed, the newly-formed committee ‘had to correct this impression, to show that it was a matter of necessity that nearly half of the women in the United Kingdom should maintain themselves, and that women, properly trained, may become useful members of the body politic’ (quoted from the 1879 pamphlet). Their methods were to maintain a high profile for their activities, in the press and by lobbying influential Members of Parliament, as well as using their considerable social networks to influence ‘people in high places’ to employ women. They attracted many important figures to serve on the committee: for example the great Lord Shaftesbury was the President of SPEW from its launch in 1859 until his death in 1885.
One of the Society’s many successes was to have women accepted into the clerical branches of the Civil Service; but there were many other pioneering innovations for which they can claim credit:
- they set up the first ‘commercial’ school to train women as book-keepers;
- sponsored the first female printing, law-copying, and plan-tracing businesses;
- arranged the first shorthand classes for women.
In addition, SPEW made it possible for many girls to be apprenticed in a wide variety of other occupations which had previously been open only to men, such as china-painting, gilding, hairdressing, photography, telegraphy, and watch-making.
The Society can claim other important ‘firsts’, such as:
- enabling the first two women to be accepted for training as hospital dispensers,
- spearheading women’s admittance to Fellowship of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
This latter struggle involved Miss Mary Harris Smith, who had been one of the Society’s pupils in their book-keeping classes during the early 1860s, and who was aged 75 when she was finally given the honour of being the first woman in the world to gain admittance to that Institute in 1920. (The previous year, 1919, she had become the first and only woman to be elected to Honorary Membership of the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors.)
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, and the advent of the telegraph, the typewriter and the telephone saw the demand for clerical labour increase, women were at last being accepted in larger numbers into the workplace (although not at the same wages as their male colleagues!). Therefore, by the 1890s many of the ‘battles’ had been won, and even though further ventures are catalogued in the archives relating to the period between the twentieth century’s two world wars, there was less need for the Society to pioneer new areas of employment or provide training facilities themselves. As a result, since that time efforts have concentrated more on helping women by advancing loans for training. These days, applicants are far more likely to apply for assistance when studying to be music therapists, war correspondents, marine scientists and conference interpreters, rather than the crafts and skills mentioned above to which nineteenth-century applicants aspired.
Whilst continuing to spearhead the Society for the rest of her life, Boucherett became involved in many other aspects of the women’s movement, in the process developing an impressive feminist identity. The importance of the contribution she made to that movement has been largely overlooked by historians. It was Boucherett’s immediate donation (of a sum equivalent to at least £2,000 today) offered during a discussion with Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon in May 1866 which helped the campaign for women’s suffrage to get off the ground. On notepaper headed ‘Society for Promoting the Employment of Women in connexion with the NAPSS, 19 Langham Place, London’ Bodichon wrote to John Stuart Mill’s daughter Helen Taylor, suggesting that the latter should draft a petition to gain the vote for women. Bodichon wrote:
Miss Boucherett who is here puts down £25 at once for expenses. I shall be every day this week at this office at 3 p.m. Could you write a petition – which you could bring with you.
The tradition of helping women to help themselves, which Boucherett spearheaded, continues into the twenty-first century. FfW’s funds are as much in demand today as they were in Victoria’s reign, as a result of which it is possible to help only about ten per cent of the young women who apply. New subscribers or donations to the Society are, therefore, always welcome.
A fantastic radio drama about Jessie Boucherett that was first broadcast by BBC Radio Lincolnshire at the end of 2015, is now available on the BBC website
The play is called “The Forgotten Suffragette” and was produced by Proto-type, alongside the University of Lincoln, supported by Arts Council England. As Jessie was born and lived in Lincolnshire the University was keen to highlight the important work of a daughter of the county and bring knowledge of her important work to a wider audience. If you have a spare hour please listen to the drama – we are sure you will enjoy it and be fascinated to hear more about the work and life of a remarkable lady.
Notes compiled by Dr Anne Bridger, FfW research associate, who also co-wrote, with Ellen Jordan, a book on the history of the Society:
Timely Assistance – the work of SPTW from 1859 – 2009.
Copies of the book can be purchased for £15. Please send a cheque payable to Futures for Women to the Secretary, Futures for Women, 11 Church Street, Marton, Rugby CV23 9RL.
To consult the archive at Girton College, Cambridge CB3 0JG, contact the archivist e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the JANUS website.