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I have only been able to find tantalizing glimpses of Anne Knight, but from those glimpses I think Knight was an amazing woman. Born in Chelmsford in 1786 to William Knight, a wholesale grocer, and Priscilla Allen, daughter of William Allen, a London brewer, a well-known radical, and a Nonconformist, Anne was raised in a family of activist Quakers. From her youth, she was involved in the Temperance movement, the nineteenth-century movement of women (and men) against violence against women and children.
Knight would never marry. Rather, believing that the Bible supported radical democratic socialism, abolitionism, and feminism, she spent her life is social activism, championing all of the major reform movements of her time. Knight also traveled a great deal in both Britain and France. Eventually she would become an important part of the nascent feminist movements on both sides of the Atlantic through her travels, correspondence, and contacts.
By 1830, Knight was deeply involved in the British Anti-Slavery (Abolitionist) movement. At first she organized petitions, circulated literature, and arranged public speeches. Eventually she formed a branch of the Women's Anti-Slavery Society in Chelmsford. Knight was a member of the same circle of radical Unitarians that included William Fox, editor of the Monthly Repository, the same man who was mentioned earlier in this series in connection with William Thompson, Anna Wheeler, and the young John Stuart Mill. Active in the Chartist movement for the six- point political reforms including extension of male suffrage and the secret ballot, Knight, influenced by her abolitionist work and her Unitarian friends, along with other radical Chartists advocated the vote for women even in the 1830s.
In 1834, Knight visited France where she lectured on the immorality of slavery. While in France, she came in contact with both Saint Simonian and Fourierist women. Knight had such esteem for the articles in Tribune des Femmes, the Saint Simonian feminist newspaper, that she copied almost 100 pages of it into her diary, using a secret coded based on Greek for the most controversial sections. In 1848 she would renew her contacts with Saint Simonian women.
Knight was a spectator, like the other British women in attendance, to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. Appalled at the treatment of the American female delegates, Knight dated her dedication to the Woman's Rights Movement to that convention. She would use the contacts she made at that convention, as well as the numerous contacts she had made in her many activist networks, to forward the woman's movement. One of Knight's letters about the convention to American abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman was reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the early 1840s, Knight had a series of brightly colored labels with miniature broadsides, feminist quotes, or feminist slogans printed on them. She affixed the labels to her mail. One such label from the 1840s, which survives on a letter in the Anti-Slavery Collection in Boston, reproduced the Saint Simonian argument that women's differences demanded equal rights. "Never will the nations of the earth be well governed until both sexes are fairly represented, and have influence, a voice, and a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws," read part of its closely printed text.
Another one of Knight's labels both celebrated the accomplishments of women in diverse cultures, demonstrated Knight's knowledge of women's almost forgotten history, and shamed contemporary European men for refusing to extend suffrage to women. That label (originally in French) read in part:
"Young women of the Gauls had the right to make the laws, they were legislators.
In some tribes, African women have the right to vote.
Anglo-Saxon women participated in England in the legislature.
The women of the Hurons, one of the strongest tribes of North America, made up a council, the elders followed their advice.
We Struggle for liberty. "
The demand by British women for emancipation, including the right to vote, grew louder during the 1840s. As noted in the essay on Marion Reid, Knight read Reid's book, A Plea for Woman, and recommended it to Lucretia Mott. Largely in agreement with Reid, Knight not only advocated suffrage for women, but the right of women to sit along side men in Parliament. According to McFadden, "On the title page, under the printed 'Can man be free, if woman be a slave,' she wrote 'No! Emancipate her then!' . . . Knight wrote in the margin, 'The point at issue must be the equalization of human privilege if my brother have a right to sit there his sister has the same right give it to her pay your debts ye dis'honorable men' (no punctuation in the original.) In the volume on this page is enclosed a pressed flower, a tiny daisy ."
According to Gleadle, Catherine Barmby's pamphlet, The Demand for the Emancipation of Woman, Politically and Socially, was circulated throughout the Western community. American intellectual Margaret Fuller read it "as did the White Quakers of Dublin, a dissident group with which Anne Knight had contact. "
In 1845, Knight helped to organize a peace petition of Englishwomen when frictions over the Oregon Territory threatened war between the US and Britain.
As we can see, Knight, now well over 50 years of age, had a long history of social activism in which she had consistently mixed a feminist message. Imbued with the arguments in support of woman's social and political rights, Knight would now become a feminist activist.
Believing that the British reform movements had grown too conservative, Knight moved to France in 1846 and remained there until 1849, renewing her old friendships with Saint Simonian and Fourierist women. Knight remained in France through the revolution of 1848, fighting the feminist fight alongside her old Saint Simonian friends. No longer were the feminist women young, naïve, starry-eyed, and idealistic. They were experienced social activists and when the door of opportunity opened just a crack, they rushed forward with all their resources, demanding from the get-go that the beneficiaries of the Revolution include women by giving women equal access to political power in the form of the ballot and equal access to government assistance in the form of worker training, education, government-sponsored employment, and other government assistance provided by the Revolutionary Government, using popular symbols and slogans of the day to win support for their cause.
During the Revolution of 1848, there were several circles of Revolutionary women: Knight worked in the same circles as the women who produced La Voix des Femmes (The Voice of Women) -- Eugénie Niboyet, Désirée Véret Gay, and Jeanne Deroin. Like the other women of La Voix des Femmes, Knight attended women's political clubs, wrote private letters to politicians, published public letters to politicians and political broadsides demanding rights for women, and protested the closing of women's political clubs and feminist publications.
Recipients of her letters included the English radical Lord Brougham, who had himself been invited to run for the French legislature in 1848, and the French minister Athanse Coquerel, the minister who sponsored the ban on women's political clubs. "Nothing but the fire of a great public enthusiasm" coupled with "the free winds of an ENTIRE franchise" will bring needed changes, Knight wrote in a public letter to Lord Brougham. (Anderson, p. 166, includes quote)
Deroin and Knight demanded "the complete, radical abolition of all the privileges of sex, of race, of birth, of rank, and of fortune" in a public letter that June. In another letter of that summer of 1848, Knight denounced "all monopolies" as "anti-Christian," whether the monopoly was of the capitalists over workers, of plantation owners over slaves, or of men over women.
When Jeanne Deroin announced her candidacy for office in 1849, Knight was there drumming up votes for Deroin. When Knight returned to England she contacted her old Chartist associates and challenged Chartist leaders who argued that the class struggle was more important than the struggle for women's rights (does that sound familiar?). In 1850 the Brighton Herald published a letter from her in which she urged the Chartists to campaign for "true universal suffrage," to fight for the rights of women. In February 1851, Knight and the Sheffield women created the Sheffield Female Political Association, believed to be the first woman suffrage organization in Britain. They convinced the radical Earl of Carlisle to present a petition to the House of Lords for the vote by "adult Females." Deroin and Paulina Roland would later write of the bond of solidarity they felt with their "Sisters of Sheffield."
True to her old interests, Knight attended the 1849 Peace Congress in Paris and found as much resistance to women's rights there as at the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. "We harmonized in the conviction that Right was of no sex. . . [but] have been told none but men can buy their birthright," she wrote in a furious public letter to the English politician Richard Cobden after the Peace Congress:
Let us not be urged to prick our fingers to the bone in "sewing circles" for vanity fair, peace bazaars, where health and mind equally suffer in the sedentary "stitch, stitch, stitch," ever toiling, never to see a Right! . . . while our poor brother is grouping his way in darkness without the good sense and clear discernment of his sister at his side. "
After her release from prison, Deroin moved to the Channel Island of Jersey and published a woman's Almanack that included news of women's rights movements around the world. The second issue of 1853 featured a letter by Knight, now nearly 70 years of age, who wrote that "a kind Providence . . . is impelling the hearts of Women in America, France, Germany, and England to come to the army of brave warriors and battle for the truth, in the upper, as well as the lower walks of life," "
Sadly, when Knight reached out to Barbara Bodichon, who was just beginning her feminist activism, Bodichon dismissed her as a crack-pot. Knight, who never married, spent the last few years of her life in Waldersbach, a small village south-west of Strasbourg. Anne Knight died on 4th November, 1862 advocating female emancipation until the very end.
Anne Knight at Spartacus, accessed Oct 10, 2002
Anne Knight, Au Pasteur Coquerel, Paris, 1848, Rutgers, accessed Oct 10, 2002
Bonnie S. Anderson, 'The Lid Comes Off: International Radical Feminism and the Revolutions of 1848', NWSA Journal Volume 10, Number 2
Bonnie S. Anderson, Joyous Greetings: The First International Women's Movement 1830 – 1860 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]
Kathryn Gleadle, The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of thw Women's Rights Movement, 1831-51 [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995]
Margaret McFadden, Golden Cables of Sympathy: The Transatlantic Sources of the Nineteenth Century Feminism [Lexington, Ky: University of Kentucky Press, 1999]
McMillan, James F., Introduction, The Development of Women's Movements, 1789-1914, accessed Oct 10, 2002
For more information:
Anne Knight and the Radical Subculture
Return to Women's History Month 2003 Table of Contents
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last updated February 2003