Janice Schroeder, “On the English Woman’s Journal, 1858-64″


The English Woman’s Journal (EWJ), published between 1858 and 1864, was the first monthly magazine to be published by an organized feminist network in England. From month to month, the EWJ featured a mix of articles on women’s employment, education, and volunteering, notable women in history, poetry, reviews, current events, and a readers’ column. Staffed by women with primarily female contributors, the magazine embodied the principles and opportunities for women it promoted. That is, in a rapidly changing industrial landscape, women needed new and better avenues of remunerative, meaningful employment, and the education and training required to succeed in the workforce. Marriage and motherhood—the domestic ideal—was not a guarantee of women’s economic or emotional well-being. Working with a meager budget, the circle of feminist activists—the Langham Place Group—who owned and ran the EWJ, saw their magazine as a space to promote and publicize the work they and other women were already doing. They experienced both the thrill and the shock of seeing their magazine, and themselves, noticed in the mainstream, male-dominated press. By 1862 the magazine had run into serious financial straits and many of the members of the network had either moved on to new projects or retired from public work. While maintaining a small subscription base throughout its six-year run, the appearance of the English Woman’s Journal in mid nineteenth-century England nevertheless signaled a new departure in feminist writing, women’s journalism, and attitudes towards women’s employment.

photo of Parkes

Figure 1: Photograph of Bessie Rayner Parkes Belloc

The English Woman’s Journal offers a window onto the transformations in attitudes towards women and femininity in nineteenth-century English culture. Although it never achieved a circulation much above one thousand subscribers, its significance in the history of both feminist writing and nineteenth-century journalism outdistances its marginal status during the period of its monthly publication between March 1858 and August 1864. While the EWJ upheld standards of feminine propriety we have come to associate with a “Victorian” outlook, its willingness to probe everyday assumptions about women’s experience, and to offer new models of the female self, made it a forerunner of both women’s movements and public feminist writing in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, it is often read as a source of information about early movements and campaigns in organized feminism, and is, indeed, a valuable document of its moment. Yet, perhaps most significantly, its monthly appearance—the fact of its serial public presence over a six-year span—offers a time-lapse record of changing meanings of womanhood and publicity.

The EWJ acted as a space for publicizing, supporting, and theorizing the activities of a network of women activists trying to increase women’s access to respectable, remunerative employment, vocational training, and volunteer opportunities. This network came to be known loosely as the “Langham Place Group” named for the location of the EWJ’s office at map icon19 Langham Place in central London. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon was the owner/proprietor; her close friend Bessie Rayner Parkes (later Belloc) was chief editor (Fig. 1), along with Matilda Hays, in the journal’s early years, followed by Emily Davies from 1862 until near the end of the journal’s run.[1] The magazine’s editors and supporters regarded it as both a medium that could connect progressive readers to new opportunities for women and an alternative to domestic magazines intended for a primarily female audience.

The EWJ both instigated and reflected changing attitudes towards women and, in its very existence, embodied the changes it promoted. Staffed by female editors, featuring content by primarily female contributors, and aimed at women readers, it was a public space for middle-class women to explore new possibilities in their daily lives. As stated in its prospectus, the journal’s primary purpose was to shed light on “the present industrial employments of women, both manual and intellectual, the best mode of judiciously extending the sphere of such employments, and the laws affecting the property and conditions of the sex” (“Domestic” 75). It promoted the expansion of employment opportunities for middle-class women, identifying the glut of female teachers as a problem in the lead article of the first issue. The EWJ also contained articles on the poor working conditions of female needleworkers, acknowledging that this was, by the 1860s, already a fairly well-known, yet no less pressing social problem. In response, it advocated the entry of more women into a broader range of skilled trades. In its treatment of female domestic service, the EWJ promoted industrial training schools for the acquisition of domestic skills, although it tended to downplay domestic service as a form of women’s employment. The issue of class was a thorny one for the journal, as Jane Rendall has observed. Acknowledging that class perception was a stumbling block for women’s entry into new avenues of remunerative labor, the EWJ consistently argued that women’s “social caste is dependent on what they are, and not on the occupation on which they may happen to be engaged” (Rendall 121). At least several readers of the Journal wrote in to query the compatibility of proper femininity with paid employment—a major ideological contradiction that the EWJ was instrumental in helping to expose, if not resolve.

The persona formulated across the magazine’s varied contents was an intelligent, informed woman who wanted more from life than pampered idleness or mindless drudgery. The EWJ assumed its readers were interested in political events, in campaigns for social reform, and in keeping up to date with the latest books and magazines. It dared to suggest that married women might find satisfaction in work outside the home; it openly argued that the domestic ideal of the married woman was an absurdity and a demographic impossibility; it questioned the absolute authority of husbands and fathers over women’s lives and property; it assumed that, as curious and reasonable beings, women were capable of intellectual exertion; it extolled motherhood as a woman’s highest calling, without sentimentalizing or idolizing it, or assuming that it was a woman’s only calling.

At the mid-range price of one shilling per issue, the EWJ contained feature articles on social and political questions pertaining to women, many of them written (although not signed) by Bessie Rayner Parkes, with titles such as “The Market for Educated Female Labour,” “What Can Educated Women Do?”  and “On the Adoption of Professional Life by Women.”[2] Other regular departments included a correspondence section, notices and reviews of recent publications, poetry, fiction, and a news digest entitled “Passing Events.” Occasional articles on travel and notable women in history provided a sense of balance to the overall tone of the journal. Each issue was 72 pages long, and the journal contained no illustrations.

The late 1850s, when the magazine arrived on the scene, was a key moment in Victorian feminist history. The legal doctrine of coverture, which subsumed a wife’s legal identity in that of her husband, was gradually being dismantled, or at least challenged, through various legal campaigns of the 1850s, including the (unsuccessful) Married Women’s Property Bill of 1857 and the passage of the Divorce Act of 1857.[3] (See, for example, Rachel Ablow, “‘One Flesh,’ One Person, and the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act”; Kelly Hager, “Chipping Away at Coverture: The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857″; and Jill Rappoport, “Wives and Sons: Coverture, Primogeniture, and Married Women’s Property.”) The census of 1851 had thrown into stark relief the limited range of viable forms of employment for unmarried middle-class women and was an important galvanizing tool for feminist awareness and activism in the 1850s and beyond.[4] The campaign to admit female scholars to the map iconUniversity of Cambridge local examinations preoccupied advocates of women’s access to higher education in the early 1860s.[5] The EWJ participated in all of these developments by providing commentary and support, publicizing relevant events and opportunities, and offering a space to reflect on the changes taking place in women’s material lives.

The journal’s appearance in the late 1850s also coincided with the publication of the first full-length novels of George Eliot—a friend of both Bodichon and Parkes—and the emergence of sensation fiction. East Lynne was mentioned briefly but approvingly in 1861, the reviewer surmising that the Divorce Act must have been a source of inspiration for Mrs. Henry Wood, its author (“Books” 193). A two-part review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë appeared in 1860, and a retrospective assessment of the importance of the Brontë sisters’ novels contributed to the construction of a feminist literary critical tradition (Robinson 162-163). In the periodical market, the EWJ was among the wave of mid-century monthly journals that was beginning to replace the older quarterlies. (On the earlier quarterly format, see Ina Ferris, “The Debut of The Edinburgh Review, 1802.″) In price and format, the EWJ signaled middle-class respectability, rather than mass popularity or elite status. It saw as its competitors both the family-oriented literary magazines that attracted both male and female readers, such as the Cornhill Magazine, as well as the popular domestic magazines aimed at women, such as Beeton’s.

Let me turn from the biographical details of the journal to a brief interpretive account of a sample article, in order to provide a sense of the complexion of the EWJ’s content. “A House of Mercy” was published in March of 1858 in the first issue of the journal. The unsigned article takes the reader on a tour of the map iconLondon Diocesan Penitentiary at map iconHighgate—a shelter and house of industry established by the Church of England for the physical rehabilitation, vocational training, and moral reform of street prostitutes and destitute women. The editorial decision to run an article dealing with one of the culture’s most threatening figures in the journal’s first issue signaled the EWJ’s willingness to take risks. At the same time, the writer was quick to stress the utter respectability of Highgate Penitentiary, perhaps to avoid offending readers, and to protect the journal from moral critique. A detailed description of the spare, spotless interior of the dormitories near the beginning of the article resembles those found in many a domestic novel. It comforts the reader with the assurance of piety and feminine modesty, character traits desired by the institution for its inmates, referred to as “girls” throughout. The girls are observed by the writer of the article, but are kept at a safe, non-contaminating distance; she never speaks to one of them directly, only to the warden of the institution, who acts as their representative. Like many accounts of the “fallen woman” emerging at mid-century, the writer cannot resist aestheticizing and sentimentalizing the “penitents” as beautiful, frail victims. Upon closer inspection, however, she declares that some are “decidedly plain, and three at least were almost idiotic-looking” (21). What we encounter in the article, then, is a relative mix of versions of the fallen woman: those truly repentant of their sins are rehabilitated and exhibit a “latent love of poetry” (24), while others are recalcitrant, pine for their old ways, and seem “possessed with a devil” (19).

Just as significant is the description of the female volunteers—the “Sisters of Mercy”—who staff the establishment and oversee the girls’ moral rehabilitation. “I only wish that we could persuade more ladies to join us in our labours,” laments one of the Sisters (15).  The article concludes with a direct appeal to the female reader, who is imagined as “educated and wealthy” but “unhappy”; an opportunity to serve a “noble” cause awaits the reader who is searching for a reprieve from the ennui of her pampered existence (27). Middle-class women’s “charity” work, while remaining voluntary, had become increasingly organized in regional or local committees or institutions since the 1820s, but by the 1850s the EWJ was a leading voice for the regulation and professionalization of such work. In a scenario that was typical for the EWJ, the working-class woman, then, becomes a site for the self-definition and professional ambitions of her middle-class counterpart. Yet by linking the “unfortunate” woman and the “unhappy” lady under the banner of a single article, a common cause, and, potentially, the roof of Highgate Penitentiary, the article—and the EWJ more broadly—brings both the fallen and the respectable into a proximity that threatened accepted notions of middle-class female propriety.[6]

“A House of Mercy,” which may have been written by Parkes, falls into the category of social observation that had become a staple of popular magazines like Charles Dickens’s Household Words. On a formal level, the EWJ was never experimental or innovative, but rather followed the lead of other rival publications, even as its feminist content featured arguments and perspectives that set it apart from other monthly magazines in its price range. The repeal of the stamp tax in 1855, just three years before the EWJ emerged, had heralded a loosening in the periodical press market, providing greater access for start-ups like the EWJ, but it also meant a significant increase in the volume of titles available to the average reader, and therefore greater competition for a new and untried journal. With fairly meager financial resources to draw upon, the EWJ’s editors could not afford to hire star writers who might have boosted the circulation of the magazine, but who might not have shared its feminist politics.

Despite its humble presence on the public stage of the Victorian press, the EWJ nevertheless provoked reaction, both positive and negative, from some of the most prestigious periodical publications of the day, including the Times newspaper, the Saturday Review, and Fraser’s Magazine. Six months into its run, the EWJ and its staff were attacked in the well-respected National Review in an unsigned article by William Caldwell Roscoe. Using a rhetorical strategy typical of long-form opinion journalism in this period, Roscoe’s article begins by praising the EWJ—its goals and its proprietors—only to take it down as the article unfolds. Most alarmingly for Parkes and her circle, the article took personal swipes at the women of Langham Place, calling their femininity into question. Yet its publication was evidence that the EWJ was making an impact. In a private letter to Parkes, Anna Jameson, one of Parkes’s mentors, anticipated the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity when she wrote that any controversy occasioned by the National Review would “all pass away—it will be forgotten and it will be to you an added power” (BRP 6.26).

The advice of Parkes’ father, Joseph Parkes, was to remain silent or risk being “smashed” by even more influential publications: “The English Woman’s Journal will be very silly if it replies in any article,” Parkes wrote to his daughter in a private letter (BRP 2.64/2). Ignoring her father’s advice, Parkes publicly replied to her critics in the January 1859 issue of the journal—a small but significant moment in the history of feminist writing.[7] In her unsigned reply, “The Reviewer Reviewed,” Parkes capitalized on Roscoe’s article by liberally quoting those sections of it that, read out of context, appeared to endorse a feminist viewpoint. Parkes noted, “Nothing in the progress of a controversy indicates better on which side the scale is turning, than to see a combatant driven to plead the cause of his opponent as a condition on which he himself may obtain a hearing—and plead it too so well” (“Reviewer” 336). These kinds of combative exchanges in print between individual periodicals help demonstrate why the mid-Victorian monthly press was both a precarious and a productive arena for feminist women writers, who wanted to compete for public attention and acceptance alongside their male counterparts, but who entered the fray with a great deal of caution. From time to time throughout the journal’s run, Parkes would respond to other attacks against the EWJ in the mainstream press, always taking care to maintain a respectful, dignified tone while defending her journal’s point of view.

By 1862, the EWJ, while still maintaining a steady subscription rate around 1000, was struggling financially. The stress of churning out a monthly magazine, paying contributors, and getting along with each other began to take its toll on Parkes and the staff. Although the Journal had always assumed a non-sectarian approach, religious differences began to affect the working relationships between the members of the group. Emily Davies took over the editorship in 1862 but was gloomy about the journal’s future. Parkes resumed the editorship again in May of 1864, but the EWJ was by that time exhausted both economically and spiritually. It merged briefly with the short-lived Alexandra Magazine in September 1864, before the title was sold to Jessie Boucherett, who assumed the editorship of the long-standing Englishwomen’s Review, a monthly digest and record of feminist activism that survived until 1910. Other feminist-oriented magazines, such as Emily Faithful’s Victoria Magazine had sprung up in the meantime, and a feminist point of view was finding its place in the mainstream press on a more regular basis.

Reading the EWJ today opens a space for rethinking the way we read feminist history. Is feminist history the sum of a series of activist campaigns, legislative victories, famous speeches, and feisty fictional heroines who spoke their mind? Even the surface of the EWJ itself promotes such a view of history. But Parkes’s private decision publicly to answer her critics in January of 1859, to talk back to a powerful male establishment of cultural critics, and to ignore her father’s advice to remain silent, is also an event in nineteenth-century public life—as is the repetitive intellectual labor that was required to spin out a feminist magazine from month to month in a cultural climate that was far from accepting of a feminist outlook. As Parkes herself recognized, what was most valuable about the EWJ was not the splashy leading article or its controversial stance, but its steady appearance; its dogged refusal to go away. “There is something [valuable] in a reiterated effort which far outweighs the effect of the separate thought,” Parkes wrote. . . . “[I]t is partly the effect of repetition—line upon line—and partly the knowledge that there is in the world a distinct embodiment of certain principles” (“Special Periodical” 258). Embodying the changes it promoted, the publication of the English Woman’s Journal helped change the face and the voice of public discussion in nineteenth-century England.

Janice Schroeder is an Associate Professor of English at Carleton University in Ottawa. She researches Victorian print and speech cultures, the periodical press, and writing about the nineteenth-century popular schoolroom.


published October 2012

Schroeder, Janice. “On the English Woman’s Journal, 1858-62.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


“A House of Mercy.” English Woman’s Journal 1 (1858): 13-27. NCSE. Web. 23 September 2012.

Bennett, Daphne. Emily Davies and the Liberation of Women: 1830-1921. London: A. Deutsch, 1990. Print.

“Books of the Month.” English Woman’s Journal 8 (1861): 193-194. NCSE. Web. 23 September 2012.

[BRP]. Bessie Rayner Parkes Papers. Girton College Archives, Cambridge. Box II and VI. Major Correspondents.

“Domestic Life.” English Woman’s Journal 2 (1858): 73-82. NCSE. Web. 23 September 2012.

“English Woman’s Journal 1858-1864.” NCSE: Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition. King’s College London. Web. Last updated 15 Dec. 2011. Accessed 23 September 2012.

Hirsch, Pam. “Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist Leader and Founder of the First University College for Women.” Practical Visionaries: Women, Education, and Social Progress, 1790-1930. Ed. Mary Hilton and Pam Hirsch. Harlow, England: Pearson, 2000. 84-100. Print.

Jordan, Ellen. The Women’s Movement and Women’s Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

[Parkes, Bessie Rayner.] “The Reviewer Reviewed.” EWJ 2 (1859): 336-343. NCSE. Web. 23 September 2012.

[—.] “The Use of a Special Periodical.” Alexandra 1 (1864): 258. Print.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1988. Print.

Rendall, Jane. “‘A Moral Engine’? Feminism, Liberalism and the English Woman’s Journal.” Equal or Different?: Women’s Politics 1800-1914. Ed. Jane Rendall. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. 112-138. Print.

Robinson, Solveig C. “‘Amazed at our success’: The Langham Place Editors and the Emergence of a Feminist Critical Tradition.” Victorian Periodicals Review 29 (1996): 159-172. JSTOR. Web. 23 September 2012.

[Roscoe, William Caldwell.] “Woman.” National Review 7 (1858): 333-361. Print.

Schroeder, Janice. “Better Arguments: The English Woman’s Journal and the Game of Public Opinion.” Victorian Periodicals Review 35 (2002): 243-271. JSTOR. Web. 23 September 2012.

Shanley, Mary Lyndon. Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.


[1] A full account of the founding and financing of the journal is in Rendall. See also the headnote to the online facsimile version of the English Woman’s Journal in NCSE: Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition.

[2] EWJ 4 (1860): 145-152; EWJ 4 (1860): 217-227; EWJ 2 (1858): 1-10.

[3] On nineteenth-century marriage laws and feminist responses to them, see Shanley.

[4]  On women’s employment in the Victorian period, see Jordan.

[5] See Bennett and Hirsch on the campaigns for women’s higher education at Cambridge.

[6] See Poovey, “The Anathematized Race” in Uneven Developments.

[7] See Schroeder for a fuller discussion of the press debates between the EWJ and competing periodicals.