Partner Margaret Bryant

Queer Places:
Cambridge University, 4 Mill Ln, Cambridge CB2 1RZ
2 Barton Street, Westminster

Mary SheepshanksMary Sheepshanks (Liverpool, 25 October 1872 – Hampstead, 21 January 1960) was a pacifist, feminist, journalist and social worker. Sheepshanks spent all her life enmeshed in a web of relationships with like-minded women; she met Margaret Bryant, who worked for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, during the First World War, and Margaret became ‘my greatest friend’. As Sheepshanks’ biographer, Sybil Oldfield, remarks, ‘We must believe Mary’s declaration … we know nothing more.’ In London, Rosika Schwimmer lived and worked with two British suffragists, Catherine Marshall and Mary Sheepshanks. Mary Sheepshanks had a background in Settlement work and educational administration: as Vice-Principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women, she had once recruited the young Virginia Woolf to teach history classes. Sheepshanks herself was recruited by Jane Addams in 1913 to become a member of the IWSA and editor of Jus Suffragii (‘the right to vote’), an impressive production published monthly for 18 years in English and French and sold for either 4 pennies, 4 marks or 4 francs, dependent on the country. The IWSA office in Adam Street was a short walk from Sheepshanks’ narrow, ivy-covered house in Barton Street, Westminster, an excellent location for lobbying politicians – from its top window you could see the Houses of Parliament.

Kathlyn Oliver was a suffragist and founder of the Domestic Workers' Union of Great Britain and Ireland (est. 1909–1910). The Freewoman, a feminist journal, printed the correspondence in 1912 between Kathlyn Oliver and Stella Browne, on sexual desire. Oliver worked in London as a servant for Mary Sheepshanks.

Sheepshanks' father was John Sheepshanks, an Anglican bishop, her mother was Margaret Ryott. The couple had thirteen children who survived infancy, of which Mary was the eldest daughter. Her mother did not have much time for her because of her many children, and Mary's relationship with her father was bad as well. She attended the Liverpool High School for Girls and lived in Kassel to learn German when she was seventeen. In 1891, she enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge to study medieval and modern languages.

During her university years, Sheepshanks started teaching literacy classes to adults in Barnwell, Cambridgeshire. She met Bertrand Russell during this time, whose progressive ideas influenced Mary to the extent that her father didn't want her to come home during holidays.[1] Mary had also, at some point, become an atheist. In 1895, Sheepshanks joined the Women's University Settlement in Southwark, where young adults with a university degree would help impoverished people. In 1897, she became vice-president of Morley College for Working Men and Women, where she asked, among others, Virginia Woolf to give lectures.

Sheepshanks had also invited Christabel Pankhurst to give a lecture at Morley College. This happened in 1907, where she spoke at a debate on women's suffrage. Sheepshanks' closing remarks to the debate were that women should be granted the vote because it would be good for them and for the state. She was a more moderate suffragist as opposed to a suffragette because she did not agree with their violent actions, but she did appreciate the suffragettes' courage. Sheepshanks joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and, in 1913, went on a European tour to talk about suffrage and other subjects that concerned women. That same year, she visited the International Congress of Women in Budapest. Here, she was appointed secretar of the International Alliance of Women and editor of its magazine, Jus Suffragii.[2] She was encouraged to take on these functions by Jane Addams.

Mary Sheepshanks was a pacifist and opposed World War I. She advocated her point of view in Jus Suffragii and called for disarmament. In November 1914, she wrote: "Armaments must be drastically reduced and abolished, and their place taken by an international police force. Instead of two great Alliances pitted against each other, we must have a true Concert of Europe. Peace must be on generous, unvindictive lines, satisfying legitimate national needs, and leaving no cause for resentment such as to lead to another war. Only so can it be permanent."[3] She wanted the magazine to remain neutral in its rapports of voting rights, so she asked women in non-belligerent states to send her news about women in the Central Powers. She also advocated for Britain to take in Belgian refugees and the International Women's Relief Committee was housed in the Jus offices. Many suffragists did not agree with Sheepshanks' neutral approach and she received many verbal attacks from both them and the press for giving attention to 'enemy states'. This lead her to open a file for 'anonymous abuse'.[4] There were also people who defended Sheepshanks' neutrality, and after the war she received various letters thanking her for keeping the women's movement united.

In 1918, Sheepshanks was appointed secretary of the Fight the Famine Council, an organisation that occupied itself with the need for a new economical order in Europe. In 1920, she lobbied the League of Nations to admit Germany and revise the reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles. She became international secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and resigned her position in 1931 because she disagreed with the position of other members of the board. She kept on organising conferences, campaigning for peace and helping victims of war. Between 1939 and 1940, she welcomed her olf friend, the Czech Jewish social worker Marie Schmolka, who stayed with her in Gospel Oak. The Second World War had made Mary pessimistic, writing to her niece: "[...] I admit that this war has made me deeply pessimistic, the incredible savagery and beastliness of the Germans and the immeasurable suffering they caused make me despair of human nature [...]" [1] She was opposed to blanket bombings and feared the consequences of nuclear weapons. During her later years, Mary Sheepshanks suffered from various health issues, like arthritis. In 1955, she wrote her memoirs. Because of her increasingly bad health and her help resigning, she decided to commit suicide rather than being placed in a care home. She died in her house in Hampstead on 21 January 1960, aged 87.


My published books:

See my published books

BACK TO HOME PAGE