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Women classicists and the ILP

One of the 15 members elected to the ILP’s first National Administrative Council was former Classics teacher Katharine St. John Conway (on marriage, Glasier). Glasier wrote continuously for the socialist press, including the Manchester Sunday Chronicle, the Clarion, and Woman Worker,12 and became Editor of the ILP’s newspaper, Labour Leader, in 1916. She collaborated with her husband, whom she met in 1892, John Bruce Glasier (Keir Hardie’s associate, born illegitimate and forced to work as a child shepherd in south Ayrshire). A vicar’s daughter, she had been classically educated at the new Girls’ Public Day School Company school at Hackney Downs.13 At Newnham College, Cambridge, she scandalised tutors by striking up a romance with a postman she taught on the University’s Extension scheme.14 She then became Classics mistress at Redland High School for Girls in Bristol and mixed with the local Fabians (through whom she met the Webbs) and Christian Socialists. Under her tutelage, the schoolgirls’ results improved dramatically: she successfully prepared 11 girls for Latin matriculation within 18 months of her arrival.15

Glasier inspired Enid Stacy, whose father was an artist friend of William Morris and Eleanor Marx. After excelling in her senior Cambridge examination at the age of 16, Stacy won a scholarship to University College, Bristol, from which, in 1890, she passed the exams for a London BA in Arts (open to women since 1878).16 She took a tutoring position at the same school as Glasier, joined the Gasworkers and General Labourers’ Union in 1889 and supported the Bristol cotton workers’ strike of 1890, becoming Secretary of the Association for the Promotion of Trade Unionism among Women. This strike also changed the life of her mentor Glasier, who joined the Bristol Socialist Party.17 They both resigned from Redlands during the Redcliff Street strike of 1892 to work full-time for the cause, speaking on the ‘Clarion Van’ and in dozens of provincial halls.

Glasier suffered serious poverty after bearing two children.18 Yet she never forgot that she was a trained classicist. One of her most impressive pamphlets is The Cry of the Children, exposing the need for radical reform of the education system, abolition of child labour and state support for all children and mothers. It was published by the Labour Press in Manchester in 1895. She argues from a long historical perspective which adds both intellectual authority and—because she can show that attitudes have differed across cultures—the sense that the current predicament of children is a problem that can be solved. She discusses Sparta, Plato’s Republic and ancient chattel slavery. Like most members of the ILP, Katharine was opposed to the British treatment of the Boers in the Boer War: amongst the lectures she gave on the circuit in Lancashire and Yorkshire was one entitled ‘Roman imperialism and our own’. She was influenced by her close friend Edward Carpenter, also a founding member of the ILP. She cites his important Civilization: its Cause and Cure (1889) in her own visionary tract The Religion of Socialism, in which a white-haired old man, a fusion of Socrates, Aesop and the Christian god, converts her to socialism.19 But the influence went two ways. After a traditional education including Classics at Brighton College, Carpenter had studied mathematics at Cambridge and lectured on astronomy for the University Extension Movement. But he became fascinated by the ancient Greeks, especially Plato and Sappho, as authors who helped him to think cross-culturally about homoerotic relationships. He probably discussed with Glasier the ancient sources on same-sex relationships gathered in his much-reprinted lolaus: An Anthology of Friendship (1902). This father of British socialist-gay activism also translated both Apuleius and the Iliad in 1900.

Glasier discussed literature and culture with her husband, who remained sceptical of the value of university education, believing that academic professionals always try to appoint right-wingers to top posts; they prefer ‘an uninformed political reactionary because ... they want to set up as stiff a political guard as they can for the protection of their class privileges’.20 But he instrumentalised information about the ancient world. One source was his friend William Morris, whom he regarded as a quasi-spiritual leader, invited regularly to lecture in Glasgow and visited in his Hammersmith home, Kelmscott House.21 Morris, despite his disingenuous claim ‘I loathe all classic literature’,22 ‘devoted several of the most fruitful years of his poetic life to the retelling of the stories’ found in ancient texts,23 even if he gave The Life and Death of Jason a medieval colouring. But it was to his wife that Glasier owed his interest in ancient Greek oratory and Platonic aesthetics, and his belief that the ten great thinkers of the world included Aeschylus and Socrates, as well as Shakespeare, Milton and Shelley.24

The other great classically trained woman lecturer in the early ILP, Mary Bridges Adams, emerged through election to a non-parliamentary body, the School Board for London (LSB).25 It had been created as one of many school boards by the Elementary Education Act 1870, which for the first time provided for the education of all children in England and Wales. Crucially, in the LSB women were allowed to vote and stand for election.26 Adams was elected to the Greenwich district seat in 1894, her campaign supported by many other women including Enid Stacy.27 An outstanding biography by Jane Martin has clarified Adams’ achievements. Her parents were Welsh and working-class. Her father was an engine fitter. She studied towards an external degree at the University of London, and matriculated from the College of Science in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In January 1882 she enrolled at Bedford College to study History, Maths, English and French as well as Latin and Greek. In the summer she passed the Intermediate London BA examinations, in the second division but with Distinctions in Maths and in Greek.28

Her academic prowess stood Adams in good stead, being cited by the gas workers who supported her election to the LSB in 1897,29 and impressing men in the top echelons of the socialist intelligentsia, who supported and bankrolled her cultural initiatives in the radical Woolwich of the 1890s. She persuaded many eminent speakers to lecture, wrote in the socialist-feminist magazine Shafts (see above p. 385) appealing for financial help for the labouring classes, and in 1899 organised an exhibition of loaned pictures called ‘Art for the Workers’ in Woolwich Polytechnic, opened by Walter Crane himself.

When widowed in 1900, Adams became a full-time propagandist for socialism. From 1903 she worked as a political secretary for Lady Warwick, whom she recruited for the Socialist Democratic Federation. She believed that working-class adults needed a specific curriculum which would educate them politically. She therefore objected to the classical and liberal educational philosophy which underlay the foundation of both Ruskin College in Oxford (1899) and the Workers’ Educational Association, under the aegis of Albert Mansbridge, in 1903 (see above pp. 195-8). Adams was convinced that there was no alternative but for all the universities—Oxford and Cambridge included—to pass into state ownership and come under popular control. The endowed seats of learning, she argued, were ‘the rightful inheritance of the people’.30

Adams was at the centre of the conflict between the WE A ‘liberals’ and the rebellious Marxist socialists who formed the revolutionary Plebs League and Central Labour College in Earl’s Court, London. Adams immediately responded by opening an equivalent establishment for women nearby, the Women’s College and Socialist Education Centre in Bebel House, into which she moved as Principal.31 Along with the working-class Manchester novelist Ethel Carnie, she taught women workers literacy and numeracy and, through the Bebel House Rebel Pen Club, how to write propaganda.32

Glasier and Adams must have been delighted by the election of Mary Agnes Hamilton, a Newnham classicist, as Labour MP for Blackburn in 1929.

Hamilton was employed in 1913 as a correspondent on women’s suffrage and reform of the poor law at The Economist, earning extra money from writing high-end ‘popular’ books about ancient Greece and Rome for OUP's Clarendon Press. Her Greek Legends (1912) is a well-written prose retelling of the Hesiodic Theogony and the stories of Theseus, Thebes, Perseus, Heracles, the Argonauts, Meleager, Bellerophon and the Trojan War. Her accessible history of the ancient world (1913) covers the entire history of the Greeks and Romans from Hissarlik (supposed site ofTroy) tojulius Caesar. In the 1920s she wrote, for a general audience, Ancient Rome: the Lives of Great Men (1922) and a new book about Greece (1926). Being an acknowledged expert in the history of the classical world lent authority to her biographies of Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and Ramsay MacDonald, as well as a lucid textbook The Principles of Socialism, published ‘with notes for lecturers and class leaders’ as the second in the ILP’s series of study courses.

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