Christina Rossetti and Women’s Suffrage

March 8 marks International Women’s Day; originally a Socialist commemoration, it has morphed into something more like Valentine’s Day. Whereas its earlier incarnation celebrated working women, for many today it merely rises to be a reminder for men to show appreciation for the ladies in their lives. While not wanting to get into the pros and cons of feminism—as with all movements, there are both—it is worth rehearsing that Christian men in particular should show love and admiration to their wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, and sisters in Christ.

As Facebook lit up with various memes and quotes about women’s rights, my thoughts hearkened to one important woman of the relatively recent Christian past: the poetess Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Rossetti is well-known for her poem that became the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” where she writes of the Christ-child’s entrance into the world and concludes with the lines, “What can I give him? I give him my heart.” Beyond her wonderful poetry, she wrote a number of short stories, studies of Dante (not surprising, considering her Italian parentage), and some works of spiritual reflection. Rossetti should justly sit at the table of eminent women like Mary Anne Evans, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley. She is a woman who, on a day like this, the church should celebrate. But what is interesting about Rossetti is that she would likely decry most of this day’s celebrations, because she was surprisingly against women’s suffrage.

An example of her stance against this form of feminism is her letter to Augusta Webster, a poetess who wrote strongly in favour of women’s rights. In the letter, Rossetti roots her understanding of the relationship between genders in the Bible, saying that there is an “unalterable distinction” between them. She also takes exception with the suffrage movement’s exclusion of married women and mothers: “[F]or who so apt as Mothers…to protect the interests of themselves and of their offspring? I do think if anything ever does sweep away the barrier of sex, and make the female not a giantess or a heroine but at once and full grown a hero and giant, it is that mighty maternal love which makes little birds and little beasts as well as little women matches for very big adversaries.”

One might come away from quotes like this thinking that Rossetti was stuck in some conservative hinterland, unwilling to get with the times. But this was not the case. Though not a Nonconformist (she was affiliated with the Tractarians), she was opposed to militarism. She also spoke strongly against the slave trade and animal abuse. Even when it came to her views of women, Rossetti was in favour of what we today might call “social justice,” particularly with her service at St. Mary Magdalene House of Charity in London, where she taught the uneducated how to read and write. This house was a place where single mothers, prostitutes and street people found help.

Nor did Rossetti’s writing ignore the role of women in society. She often explored themes specific to women, so much so that recent scholars have noted that her work was at odds with her patriarchal culture, though not going so far as to endorse the aims of the outright feminism. Rossetti’s overriding concern with the suffragettes—and here we can think of the great feminists like Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Stanton—is their lack of Christian orthodoxy or religious belief altogether. Again, in her letter to Webster, Rossetti puts it plainly: “I do not think the present social movements tend on the whole to uphold Xtianity, or that the influence of some of our most prominent and gifted women is exerted in that direction: and thus thinking I cannot aim at ‘women’s rights.’”[1]

Rossetti thus serves as a model, for Christian women and men, of how to maintain orthodox Christian conviction, while also working for social causes. Neither need be abandoned as we serve others in the name of the risen Christ, on International Women’s Day or otherwise.

[1] All quotes come from Christina Rossetti and Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1898), 11-112.