19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 16 (2013)

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‘No one pretends he was faultless’: W. T. Stead and the Women’s Movement

Lucy Delap, Maria DiCenzo


A 1912 tribute to W. T. Stead in the Contemporary Review claimed that ‘he lay outside conventional movements, and was singularly detached from normal currents of political influence. He did not belong to anybody.’ Not only was this true across the range of reforms and causes Stead expressed support for, but also in more specific contexts. As a champion of women’s emancipation, Stead’s efforts were widely welcomed by the activists and groups of the women’s movement, despite their diverse and competing approaches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In spite of this unanimity, Stead’s public, epistolary, and private interactions with activists of the women’s movement offer interesting insights into what he had come to represent for feminists and women reformers at the time. Stead’s reputation as a ‘crusader’, ‘champion’, and ‘friend’ was measured in terms of major contributions ranging from his early and famous campaign against the white slave trade to his willingness to support militant methods of suffrage protest. This paper explores the dimensions of Stead’s involvement in women’s rights campaigns, focusing on the tensions between his roles as a chivalrous, or even flirtatious, friend to the women’s movement, intransigent moral crusader, and no-nonsense journalist and editor. The paper draws on a variety of publications and correspondences, taking into account Stead’s direct participation in debates (through articles, character sketches, public speaking, etc.) as well as the ways in which he encouraged and facilitated the work of women journalists and reformers in practical ways, as an editor, employer, friend, and mentor.

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