Desktop version

Home arrow Political science arrow British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913


Women in the CRA

The CRA began with an almost exclusively male authority structure; a few women played key roles in the background. In the CRA’s initial prospectus, only four women appeared among the 62 worthies who endorsed the new organization.[1] Over time women expanded their involvement in leadership while becoming a more significant presence among donors and meeting attendees.

Analyzing donors by sex demonstrates these patterns. Only three women appeared in the top 25 donors, but women made up 30 percent of all identified donors and gave 18 percent of funds. The female proportion of individual gifts and of their value rose over time, as shown in Table 4.3 below.

Women seldom appeared as donors in the CRA’s first two years. Grant credits the involvement of missionaries, particularly the Harrises, for the growing number of women thereafter, because missionaries tapped into female religious conviction unreachable by Morel. The Harrises’ London Auxiliary achieved a significantly higher female participation, a credit to their methods and greater openness to women. Alice Harris’s lectures had special resonance for women. The CRA, despite its increasing appeal to women, was more masculine in its donor base than its sister organizations; 41 percent of the amalgamated

Table 4.3 CRA donations by women

Number of gifts

Value of gifts




1906-Sep. 1907



Central CRA Sep. 1907-Oct. 1908



London Aux. April 1907-Oct. 1908



Oct. 1908-March 1910



April 1910-June 1913






Notes: Excludes anonymous donors and mixed gender groups (brother/sister, husband/wife).

Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society’s donors in 1909 were women, accounting for 27 percent of donations.[2]

Its leadership was more male than its donors. At the auxiliaries, only three women appeared among 67 named officers: Morel’s sister-in-law Winifred Richardson, Secretary, Plymouth Auxiliary; Gertie Emmott, President, Women’s Auxiliary; and Alice Harris, Joint Secretary (with John), London Auxiliary, and Secretary, Women’s Auxiliary. Outside the Women’s Auxiliary, there were only 20 women among 247 committee members at ten auxiliaries for which records were available.[3] In several auxiliaries the Committees included no women. Although men dominated the public sphere, this was particularly low female representation, resulting from the CRA’s strength in arenas that were almost exclusively male: Parliament, church leadership, missionary society leadership, and commerce.[4] The CRA had little connection to areas where women more often had formal leadership roles, such as school boards, poor law boards, compassionate charities, and women’s suffrage.

The CRA’s rhetoric of legal rights and obligations reflected and reproduced the movement’s masculinity; the campaign directed emotional appeals to women, emphasizing the harm done to women and children. In his Plan of Campaign, Morel included a women’s appeal along these lines, leading to a 1904 pamphlet, “The Treatment of Women and Children in the Congo State,” written for Gertie Emmott to distribute to Women’s Liberal Federations and later reproduced in America. However, in mixed meetings, Congo reform speakers brought in all the tropes at their disposal to reach every listener.

The CRA could be condescending to women. Casement suggested that women’s energies could best be deployed by holding bazaars, because “Women love bazaars.” Emmott discouraged a women’s committee.[5] At a meeting in Bristol, when a Mrs Swann asked if the movement was for men only—a telling question in itself—Morel said, “No good work had ever been done without the assistance of women.” Not only did the CRA welcome their aid, but “ladies were helping them in other cities.”[6] Morel saw the Association as a male organization usefully assisted by women.

Masculine hegemony did not preclude women’s influence. Because men generated, dominated, and recorded most of the CRA’s story, examining the few women who played important but often overlooked roles shows how they functioned in a male-led movement and public sphere.

The spirit of the movement derived from Mary Kingsley, Morel’s mentor, Holt’s comrade-in-arms, Alice Stopford Green’s friend, and Casement’s acquaintance.[7] Morel and Holt invoked her name for years, codifying her as a most remarkable woman. Simultaneously, she seemed to transcend gender for her contemporaries, shown by colonial governor Matthew Nathan’s complimenting her as having a man’s fearlessness and sense of justice.[8]

Kingsley’s friend Alice Stopford Green played a considerable behind-the- scenes role in the reform movement, mostly assisting and advising Morel. She introduced him to editors, politicians, colonial officials, and others. She labored on his behalf, for instance by trying to find a buyer for the West African Mail in the dark days of December 1904 and collecting funds for his 1911 testimonial.[9] She counseled him on his writing, movement strategy, and his relationships with other reformers and powerful people, always in terms of unwavering support. For her, Morel was the movement’s keystone, writing, “I am a great believer in ‘one-man’ efforts. It is these that have ... succeeded.”[10] Should his energy flag or his attention wander, the cause would be lost. At the height of the campaign she expressed her attitude more fully, feeding his ego to keep him fighting:

Everyone to whom I have spoken in these years has argued that your ability had given the most conspicuous proof in our generation of what might be done by journalistic enterprise in honest and able hands. There has been nothing at all corresponding to it. Every hand against you and nothing with you but your energy and ability ... The fight with the Devil is not ended yet in this world ... The way is narrow and strait and the company is small ... And we think that God is there—and true friends—and loyal companionship.[11]

She rallied him when he felt discouraged and cheered his victories. Until his 1908 move to London, he stayed at her house when he came to the city. She was a friend in whom he could confide his worries and despair, knowing she would not break his trust.[12]

Despite her strong Irish connections, she was unable to rally the Irish Home Rule MPs to the Congo cause. Although their leader, John Redmond, was sympathetic when she and Casement approached him in 1904-05, some MPs were hostile because they prioritized Irish issues, saw the reformers as antiCatholic, and, Morel suspected, accepted payments from Leopold.[13] By 1906 they had convinced the Irish Parliamentary Party to oppose Congo reform. Green deplored their refusal to advocate for both Ireland and the Congo.

In her letters to Morel, she praised people he thought well of and attacked people he complained about. When Morel turned against someone, she reinforced his move with vituperation. When Morel was working with Grey, she endorsed him: “I agree with you in trusting Sir Edward Grey. He may be cautious and correct but ... you might reckon there on scrupulous honor,” and “He is really a humane man and I think truly hates injustice and cruelty.”[14] But when Morel attacked Grey in June 1909, she called Grey a hypocrite and later asserted, “I do not think he is an honest man.”[15] Whether Green saw the matter exactly as Morel did or was unwilling to disagree, she had the effect of reinforcing Morel against those allies, such as the Emmotts, who felt he had made a serious mistake.

She similarly joined Morel in his growing irritation toward John Harris, unlike Holt and Cadbury, who remained on good terms with Harris, Cadbury only for a while. “Little Harris,” she wrote, was “ordinary,” guilty of “treachery,” and ruined by his religious training. Like other clergymen, he should have had to “serve in a shop where stealing was not allowed.” She advised Tyrell at the Foreign Office not to “touch Harris nor any of his doings.”[16] Her propensity to fan the flames of Morel’s anger rather than to encourage him to seek solutions bore some responsibility for Morel’s intransigence and the unnecessary drama in the CRA.

Green lived a number of gender contradictions. She assisted the movement using the tools of an actively political woman, but one who, like Kingsley, did not support women’s suffrage. In keeping with middle-class practice, she had helped John Richard Green with his magnum opus on British history and completed the last volume after his death. With widowhood came the freedom to work under her own name. She achieved fame as a popular historian with her history of Ireland, a rarity in an androcentric profession.[17] She had long been involved in Liberal circles in London. Despite her public standing as a historian and her political connections, she took only modest public roles in the Congo campaign.

Like Green, Gertie Emmott was a political woman. She supported her husband’s political career, and, after involvement in charity, undertook her own political life, beginning with her election to the Oldham Board of Guardians in 1898.[18] Once her husband left the CRA, she became his intermediary, but with her own style and agency. She gave Morel the benefit of her knowledge of parliamentary politics and philanthropy in advice less tainted than Green’s by uncritical loyalty. Like Katherine Thomasson and CRA London Auxiliary committeewoman Jane Cobden Unwin, Emmott was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Her concern for the Congo led her to become the President of the CRA Women’s Auxiliary.

Both Green and Emmott carved out places of influence for themselves in the male-dominated world of politics, government, and Congo reform. Although insiders in many ways, as women they were also outsiders, trying to influence a power structure that excluded them from most formal roles at this time.

Violet Simpson, another active CRA woman, had spent the 1890s as Andrew Lang’s historical research assistant, and then became a writer of historical novels, short stories, and articles about life in bygone days. In 1904-07, she was the Assistant Honorary Secretary of the CRA in London, taking a flat there at her own expense for this purpose. She worked from the West African Mails London office, where Roger Casement also worked in 1905. When the Harrises came to London in 1906, Simpson joined them at the Association’s new offices on Queen Victoria Street.

According to Morel, Casement, and John Harris, Simpson was demanding, difficult, and ineffective, unable to inspire donors or arrange events. Morel avoided addressing these issues in writing, perhaps from misplaced chivalry. While unhappy to be ordered about by “General Simpson,” Casement noted that

“she spreads the light like any good firebrand,”[19] suggesting she could advocate for the cause. John Harris had fewer compliments to spare. His letters brim with complaints that, despite her constant letter-writing, she accomplished nothing.[20] Eventually, she quit in exasperation. It is difficult to know the origins of these problems, but Simpson’s own attitude and actions contributed. She wrote two novels while at the CRA London office; perhaps the diligent work Casement and Harris observed was unrelated to Congo reform. The effect of gender dynamics is harder to discern. An unmarried woman, just a year younger than Morel and devoted to the Association, Simpson viewed herself as a leading reformer. The men did not share this view; to them she was simultaneously office staff and a well-connected professional oddly unable to leverage her network.

With the possible exception of Simpson, the CRA was fortunate in the competence of the comparatively few women who labored for the cause, including the London office staff, particularly the lead clerk, Edith G. Harrington. Morel came to rely on her judgment and talent. Once he sent her to spy out a shady investment group that later misused his name on promotional material to form a concession company in the French Congo.[21] During Morel’s 1910-11 Nigeria trip, Harrington ran the London office. She referred policy questions to Mary Morel and others, but otherwise ensured that ordinary business continued. She wrote to Dilke regarding the second 1910 election, asking him about revising the Questions for Candidates pamphlet and offering to convene the Parliamentary Committee. He addressed his reply to “Dear Sir,” reflecting his Victorian assumption that office staff showing initiative and competence would be male unless otherwise identified.[22] When it came time to wind down the CRA, Morel wrote her a recommendation for distribution through his friends, the only such note for a woman in the files and the most widely circulated reference. He praised her shorthand, typing, and charming personality, but did not mention her good judgment or how she handled things in his absence.[23] Perhaps Morel wrote in terms that would appeal to male employers without making her seem threatening, but it is possible that he undervalued her contribution.

He did not undervalue Mary Richardson Morel, his wife. Mary convinced him to start the CRA, despite the disruption this would entail for their family. He sometimes engaged a typist when he tried to manage his workload by working at home Thursday through Sunday, but often Mary supplied this assistance in addition to her ordinary work of supervising the household staff and raising the children.[24] When Morel was in Africa, Harrington, Harris, and others referred policy questions to her. Her contributions were almost completely hidden, though not from those close to Morel, such as Casement and Cadbury. After Morel’s death, she did not follow Green in creating a career and public identity for herself. Mary Morel was a vital support to a public man and his work but not an independent actor on the public stage.

On the surface, Alice Harris presents a contrast to Mary Morel. Her photographs of the human toll of Leopold’s regime made her name known even before she spoke at hundreds of meetings in Britain, America, France, and Switzerland. Determined to continue a shared career with her husband, they became Joint Secretaries of the London Auxiliary in 1906-08, CRA Joint Organising and Traveling Secretaries in 1908-10, and Joint Organising Secretaries of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society after that. Yet similarities with Mary Morel show how gender operated to maintain men as their partnerships’ primary public faces.

Alice Seeley Harris, a silk-works manager’s daughter, came from a middle- class family related to imperial historian John Seeley. After time at King’s College London, she entered the Civil Service at age 20, working for the Accountant General in the London General Post Office. She volunteered with local missions through F.B. Meyer’s Regent’s Park Church and Christ Church. Meyer inspired her to become a missionary in Africa, though she hesitated because of her parents’ objections.[25] She met John Harris, another Meyer protege, when she needed a substitute teacher for her Sunday afternoon class. She was 25, he 21 and training to be a missionary with the Guinnesses. Shortly thereafter, she left the Civil Service to learn nursing at the Guinness-run Doric Lodge training center for women. In January 1897, the Congo Council refused her application to go to Africa because there were too many women in the field already.[26] Showing persistence, she applied again in April, and the Council deemed her well suited but needing language skills.[27] In November 1897, they agreed to send her in the spring, pleased by her “stable character” and Meyer’s warm recommendation.[28] In January 1898, the Council expressed consternation that she had become engaged to John Harris without permission. Their policy forbade marriages until both parties had lived in the Congo for a year to reduce the risk of losing two missionaries if either found it physically or mentally unsuitable.

Alice Seeley Harris Source

Figure 4.1 Alice Seeley Harris Source: Flyer by The Lecture Agency.

The Council approved their engagement with the proviso that they marry in the Congo.[29] Due to changes in the traveling party, the Council revised its decision on 22 April, and let them marry before sailing, on 6 May; Guinness and Meyer attended.[30] The Council resolved to never again allow such a marriage.[31] If the Harrises’ defiance of the policy indicated their determination, their success nonetheless required Meyer’s support.

Alice and John’s devotion to their work trumped other considerations, including child-rearing. Their first child was born at the Baringa mission. Six weeks after the birth of their second while on furlough, they left both children in the RBMU children’s home to return to the Congo. Two more children came, and they left all four in the care of others for long periods.

Like several other RBMU missionaries, Alice Harris had brought a camera to the mission to document the work, the local environment, and how people lived. Her photographs of the regime’s effects made her famous; they became a key reform campaign feature in the press, in books, in exhibitions, and most often in magic lantern lectures.

The Harrises were not the first missionaries to criticize the regime, but they would be the most effective. They were not involved in the campaign against the Congo regime before 1904, and had no connection with Casement’s report.[32] In 1904, John Harris sent lengthy letters to the Congo and Abir officials about the treatment of the local people. Alice may have penned the letters, which were in French. John met with May French Sheldon on her investigatory journey later that year and tried to draw her attention to atrocities. By testifying before Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry in late 1904, John became famous. Alice transcribed his testimony, which Morel printed in the West African Mail along with John Weeks’s.[33] Leopold never released the Commission’s proceedings, so these letters gave the only glimpse into the real conditions described to the Commission and brought the Harrises from obscurity to prominence.

As they prepared for a furlough in 1905, John Harris suggested a British and American speaking tour to Morel, featuring Alice’s photographs. He urged Morel to deploy Alice: “Mrs Harris is an intelligent woman, a most thoughtful and able speaker—cannot you use her to plead the cause of the women and children on the Congo—some people that withstand the pleadings of men are powerless before a lady.”[34] However, when Casement, Cadbury, Morel, and

Meyer discussed the upcoming lectures, they ignored this offer. Her standing changed with the American tour. John Harris wrote of “the remarkable reception given to Mrs Harris’s addresses wherever she goes, so much so that we have been asked to separate ... Apparently there is something distinctly pathetic in a woman appealing for defenceless Africans” as he had predicted.[35]

When they returned to Britain in 1906 to run the newly formed London Auxiliary, Alice lectured, giving over 200 talks in the next four years, some with John but most on her own, including in Switzerland and Paris. Women such as Kingsley, Shaw, and French Sheldon had been on the lecture circuit for some time, as had women speaking for women’s causes such as suffrage and social purity campaigns, so the presence of a woman was not unusual. By 1912, she had reached the pinnacle of public speaking; her name appeared on Christy’s Lecture Service advertisements alongside celebrities such as Winston Churchill, Ernest Shackleton, and Roald Amundsen.[36]

While there is ample testimony to her speaking ability, understanding her capabilities as an officer of a humanitarian organization requires attention to silences. Few letters to or from her survive in the CRA and Anti-Slavery Society archives. The reformers seldom mentioned her except as a speaker. Unlike Violet Simpson or her husband, she was not the subject of complaint. Praise for the London Auxiliary or the Organising Secretaries’ work mentions John Harris or “Mr and Mrs Harris” but not Alice alone. With John’s more extensive lecturing and given her administrative experience with the GPO, she must have played an important role in the office. She had more education, connections, and general cultural capital than her husband, a plumber’s son, illustrated by her correspondence from the Congo with Lord Fitzmaurice, her father’s friend.[37]

While the evidence suggests a determined personality of significant ability, the archives’ silence implies a modest personal presentation. Though Alice was no stranger to the public, John was their partnership’s public face. While he hobnobbed with Holts and Cadburys and developed connections to prominent public men such as Lord Cromer, she stayed in the background. When he committed some real, trivial, or imagined error at the CRA, he alone bore Morel’s wrath, though one imagines that his wife participated in, knew about, or possibly opposed his actions. Mary Morel was technically a housewife and Alice Harris always had a paid position, but they both devoted themselves to their husbands’ success. Alice may have undertaken their shared career aware of his weaknesses as well as his strengths. She could work at his side and thereby lend him the benefit of her abilities while giving him all the credit. If this was the case, they sailed their partnership safely through assumptions about gender roles and the proper structure of a marriage. Alice Harris could have more conventionally supported her husband’s work without public credit, as Alice Stopford Green and Mary Morel did. Certainly the near-silence in the archives and her husband’s far more visible presence in the corridors of power suggest a traditional public subordination. Her challenge to the conventions of the time manifested itself in her appearance as “Joint Secretary” with her husband. More than the shared career, it was the public acknowledgment of it on official letterhead as well as her listing for Christy’s speakers’ bureau that recognized her as a married woman in a public career.

As noted above, women were an audience valued for their potential as supporters of Congo resolutions, as donors to the cause, and as part of grassroots organizing. The organization perceived itself and its chief actors pursuing a masculine battle for justice and rights. Women played important roles, constrained by their own expectations and by a culture that undervalued their contributions. As Davidoff and Hall have written about a somewhat earlier period, “Some divisions between men and women were enshrined in bricks and mortar, some in custom and practice, and others in association rules and regulations, but none were so set as not to be open to contestation and negotiation.”[38] While formal rules held women back less in Edwardian Britain, the force of custom and practice retained much of its old power.

  • [1] CRA March 1904 Prospectus, F4/5, 281.
  • [2] 1909Annual Report of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery and Aborigines ProtectionSociety, 12-17.
  • [3] F10/18:2-10; Leeds, Organ, 1910; London, The Rising Tide, Spring 1907, 2.
  • [4] F.M.L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of VictorianBritain, 1830-1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 252-3.
  • [5] Plan of Campaign, 31 March 1904, F4/4:141-58. Casement and Emmott comments,1904, F4/5:165-205.
  • [6] Organ, May 1907, 36.
  • [7] Birkett, Kingsley, 102, plate 3.
  • [8] Matthew Nathan, 3 July 1907, Journal of the Royal African Society 7, no. 25 (October1907): 28-31.
  • [9] Casement to Morel, 15 December 1904, F8/17:111.
  • [10] Green to Morel, 21 May 1902, F8/71:49.
  • [11] Green to Morel, 9 May 1907, F8/72:180.
  • [12] Green to Morel, 8 October 1901; F8/71:27; Green to Morel, late 1902, F8/71:65.
  • [13] Emmott to Morel, 11 April and 6 May 1904, F8/53:52, 61; Green to Morel, 8August 1904, 2 and 8 February 1905, 24 May 1906, F8/72:136,142, 143, 169; MacDonaldto Morel, 25 May 1906, F8/106:9.
  • [14] Green to Morel, 7 and 10 January 1907, F8/72:176, 177.
  • [15] Green to Morel, 20 June 1909 and 11 March 1910, F8/72:218, 244.
  • [16] Green to Morel, 5 January and 26 May 1910, F8/72:232, 251.
  • [17] Sandra Holton, “Gender Difference, National Identity and Professing History: TheCase of Alice Stopford Green,” History Workshop Journal, no. 53 (spring 2002): 118.
  • [18] Cheryl Law, Women, a Modern Political Dictionary (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 58.
  • [19] Casement to Morel, 1 November 1905, F8/20:271.
  • [20] Harris to Morel, 9 November 1905, F8/75:207.
  • [21] Morel to Harrington, 14 July 1910, F8/34:25.
  • [22] Harrington to Dilke, 15 November 1910, and Dilke to “E.G. Harrington, Esq.,”16November 1910, F8/44:399-400.
  • [23] Morel to Doyle, 6 September 1912, F8/50:130.
  • [24] F10/11:227, 28 May 1904.
  • [25] Sybil Oldfield, “Harris, Alice,” in Woman Humanitarians: A Biographical Dictionaryof British Women Active between 1900-1950 (London: Continuum, 2001), 94-7; AliceHarris’s autobiography, Brit. Emp.; Rachel Whitehead, “The Aborigines Protection Societyand the Safeguarding ofAfrican Interests in Rhodesia,” (PhD diss., Oxford University, 1975).
  • [26] Congo Council, 28 January 1897, Reel 11, Vol. 2, 34.
  • [27] Congo Council, 29 April 1897, Reel 11, Vol. 2, 56.
  • [28] Congo Council, 25 November 1897.
  • [29] Congo Council, 28 October 1897 and 27 January 1898, Reel 11, Vol. 2, 80.
  • [30] Regions Beyond, June 1898, 269. Other chronologies in recent literature are notsupported by evidence. John Peffer, “Snap of the Whip/Crossroads of Shame,” VisualAnthropology Review, Vol. 24, Issue 1 (Spring 2008) 60, 64; Grant, Civilised Savagery, 31, 40.
  • [31] Congo Council, June 1898.
  • [32] Oldfield, “Harris,” 94; О Siochain and O’Sullivan, Eyes of Another Race, 263-4.
  • [33] WAM Congo Supplement, July 1905.
  • [34] Harris to Morel, 8 May 1905, F8/75:169.
  • [35] Harris to Buxton via J.G. Alexander, 31 January 1906, Brit. Emp. s.18, C82/77a.
  • [36] Brit. Emp. s.19 D4/5.
  • [37] Brit. Emp. s.353.
  • [38] Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, 429.
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics