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History Women: Bessie Rayner Parkes

August 6, 2010

A while ago I said I might start putting up biographies of some of the women I wrote about for my thesis. This is the second of that series. The title is a reference to the 1995 article by Joan Thirsk, published in ‘Chattel, servant or citizen: women’s status in church, state and society’, edited by O’Dowd and Wichert.

Bessie Rayner Parkes is not primarily known as a historian, but that’s how I came across her. She about nuns, which was my focus. She’s mainly known for her earlier feminist campaigning work, and other writings.

In her earlier life she was a key figure in the Langham Place group, an association of women who united first-wave feminist campaigning with cultural production, even publishing their own newspaper, The Englishwomen’s Journal to promote the education of girls and young women. Her particular focus was the right of married women to own property in their own names, and the of middle class women to work. In 1866 she joined the first women’s suffrage association. At the same time as this political activism Rayner Parkes was writing poetry and works of fiction.

In the early 1860s Bessie Rayner Parkes converted to Catholicism, inspired by the social work performed by nuns, just as Frances Margaret Taylor had been. Her writing began to be less focused on the rights of women and more on her religious beliefs. In 1898 she wrote Historic Nuns, a set of biographies of nuns who had lived exemplary, and in some cases extraordinary, lives. All of those she featured were deeply involved as social as well as religious work – tending to the sick, teaching, and looking after the most vulnerable in their respect societies. A theme often returned to in Historic Nuns is the solidarity between nuns, and their ability to inspire one another to greater moral and spiritual achievements. This female co-operation and friendship is the tie that links the lives of these nuns to Rayner Parke’s own experiences with the first wave feminist movement.

On a side note, I love her summary of the role of nuns in Gothic literature –
Previous to that the romancers had immured them in dungeons, walled them up alive, carried them off on wild horses, drowned them in tears or left them weltering in their own blood.
Historic Nuns (London, 1898)

Further reading:
Profile in Literary Heritage

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