Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has renamed Aquila House, its ‘new’ Town Hall, ‘Muriel Matters House’. But if HBC really wants to justify spending taxpayers’ money on commemorating a local feminist, it has picked the wrong person.
A skilful publicist in her lifetime, Australian suffragette Muriel Matters (1877-1969) has now achieved further posthumous renown by having Hastings’ seat of government called after her.
However, Hastings has a much worthier claimant to have a building named after her: Barbara Leigh-Smith, later Mrs Bodichon (1827-1891) was not only born near Hastings and lived most of her life in or near the town, but is arguably the true pioneer of the modern Women’s Movement.
Living from childhood, for 17 years, at 9 Pelham Crescent, in 1856 she published the first treatise petitioning for women’s property rights. This publication led to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 which founded the first steps towards financial independence for women by making a woman’s earnings after marriage her own, no longer her husband’s.
Barbara recognised that without financial autonomy women were powerless and until this could be achieved all other ‘rights’ were secondary.
Her document, published locally at 42 George Street, is a key moment in Hastings’ history, yet there is nothing here to commemorate the historic event. In the 1860s (long before Muriel’s birth), Barbara started the first organised ‘Votes for Women’ petition. As part of her feminist mission she was also instrumental in encouraging and financing ‘modern’ girls’ schooling, higher education and careers for women. The first women’s College: Girton, owes its existence to her. She even provided a free night school for local labourers, male as well as female.
Barbara achieved so much more for women than Muriel, despite lacking the flamboyance of the latter (who after all only retired here). It is sad that apart from a blue plaque on 9 Pelham Crescent and a simple tomb in Brightling churchyard, this hugely important daughter of Hastings and national catalyst of Rights for Women and feminist legislation is largely ignored.
HBC really does need to research its local history before bestowing names on places. And doesn’t ‘Bodichon House’ have a better resonance than ‘Muriel Matters House’?
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