Friday, 7 April 2017

Caroline Stephen

Caroline Stephen (1834-1909) is known, if at all, as the aunt of Virginia Woolf.   She seems to have been portrayed by the male members of her family as a daft old bat or frustrated spinster, when she in fact she was a model of social engagement, kindness, strength of character, brains and spirituality, not to mention the literary ability that was also manifest in her niece.  One of the intellectual aristocracy of the C19th, she produced a number of writings on a range of Quaker-related topics which could be seen as the last gasp of the quietist tradition.  This would fit with the evidence of a photograph of her, which seems to show her in a bonnet of plain dress.

Given modern Quakers' predilection for public advocacy and radical theology, her life and work are overdue for revival.  A particular case in point is her Quaker Strongholds, which is a neglected classic.  Another case in point is her feminism. Stephen opposed violent suffragetism so she was a suffragist rather than a suffragette.  Her The Service of the Poor (1871) is wide-ranging piece on the arguments for and against having religious sisterhoods for charitable purposes, at a time when an increased role for the State in welfare matters was still in contention. She took an anti-statist position, seeing a particular role for female religious orders in providing welfare services, in direct opposition to socialism.  I would claim her as being in the liberal tradition of Quakerism, like Edmund Harvey, who knew her when he arrived in London as a young man.

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