Wilberforce and the oppression of women

The New Statesman of 28 December 2013 poses an important question: ‘Why has there never been a successful prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK?’ This is not the only issue on which the law has been slow to act. Distressing cases have come to light of so-called ‘honour killings’ and forced marriages, where the authorities have been painfully dilatory. Even more horrific acts are taking place in the wider world. A teenager is shot and left for dead for campaigning for girls’ education. A child bride dies of internal injuries. Women are being stoned to death for adultery or for grotesquely trivial reasons. Yet until recently, misplaced cultural sensitivities have prevented the highlighting of these terrible events. Would Wilberforce have felt so constrained? The answer is a definite no. He was no feminist. There is no evidence that he had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and if he had, I’m sure the book would have horrified him. He accepted without question St Paul’s prescription that wives should obey their husbands and should not usurp authority over men. He was even opposed to too much female activism in the cause of anti-slavery, thinking it unfeminine for women to join Anti-Slavery Societies.

‘For ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.’ (quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, p. 226)

However, as I have argued in an earlier post, he went out of his way to ensure that his long-suffering daughter-in-law was protected from the extravagance of her profligate husband.

When it came to what we would call the developing world, Wilberforce was more enlightened and perceptive. In particular, he recognised the importance of the education of women in emerging economies. Writing about the former French colony of Haiti, he stated that he wished to press on its king

‘that the female sex is undervalued and ill-treated in all uncivilized countries; that they are the formers of the rising generation, and should therefore be treated for their high office’. (Stott, p. 202)

In my book I give two instances of Wilberforce’s indignation at two particularly gross examples of the ill-treatment of women. The first occurred in the parliamentary debate of 2 April 1792 when he told the Commons about a young slave girl who was being transported across the Atlantic on the terrible ‘middle passage’. The girl was menstruating and trying to conceal her condition, but when the captain discovered it, he beat her, tied her up by her leg and beat her again. (Isaac Cruikshank published a semi-pornographic caricature of this incident, which for copyright reasons I am unable to reproduce, but it can be viewed here.) She lost consciousness and died three days later. Pressed by a shocked House of Commons to name the guilty man, Wilberforce used the rules of parliamentary privilege to name Captain John Kimber. This was a courageous action on his part. Kimber was a thug and he threatened Wilberforce with extremely unpleasant consequences if he did not withdraw his accusation. For a while he was in real fear of his life, particularly after Kimber had been acquitted after a perfunctory trial before the High Court of the Admiralty. When Kimber paid him an unfriendly visit two years later, Wilberforce described him as ‘very savage looking’ (quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, p. 201).

1820s A_Hindoo_Widow_Burning_Herself_with_the_Corpse_of_her_Husband

A depiction of a sati from the 1820s

The second occasion has perhaps more contemporary resonance. In 1813 Parliament was debating the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, and Wilberforce used this opportunity to insert a clause that would open up British India to missionary work. In his speech of 22 June he launched a virulent attack on Hinduism that reads shockingly in today’s more tolerant climate. A key part of the speech was an attack on sati (widow-burning). The practice had been in decline under the Muslim Mughal rulers, he argued, but it had increased in the area of the East India Company so that in a comparatively small area around Calcutta 130 widows had been burned within the space of six months. In the printed record of the debates he insisted on the insertion of a particularly gruesome account of a sati, in which a woman died in slow agony on a small fire, ‘her legs hanging out while her body was in flames’. It was strong stuff, hard to read even two hundred years later.

Bentinck_william

Lord William Bentinck (1773-1839)

In 1829 the Governor-General of India, Lord William Cavendish Bentinck, was to abolish sati, largely because of pressure from Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelicals. Lord William was the brother-in-law of one of his closest friends, Lady Olivia Sparrow, and he had joined the predominantly Evangelical Bible Society under the influence of his wife’s family. Wilberforce always followed his career with great interest. In February 1830, before the news of the abolition of sati had reached England, he wrote to Lady Olivia expressing the hope that the Governor had been able to abolish the ‘enormity’ of widow-burning, and rid India of a ‘foul Blot’ (British Library, Egerton MS 1964, fo. 137b). Through his campaigning and his personal connections, he had managed to bring about a change in the law, though of course this does not mean that the practice ceased.

In his dislike of so much female activism, Wilberforce revealed himself as a cultural conservative. (I will follow up the complexities of his position in a later blog.) But with his acute sense of female vulnerability, he believed that women needed the protection of Parliament, especially in the parts of the world he considered ‘uncivilized’.  His horrifying anecdotes of the abused slave girl and the burned widow leave little doubt that, confronted with the type of abuses occurring in our own day, he would have denounced them eloquently, and what is more, done everything within his power to eradicate them.

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