Going to America: Ray Strachey’s travels

In October 1908 two young English suffragists fresh out of Newnham College Cambridge travelled across America by train to try to galvanize support for the women’s vote. Few people shared their enthusiasm, but they found an unlikely ally in the philosopher and psychologist William James.

Ray Strachey (née Costelloe) later became one of the most influential figures in the fight for British women’s suffrage and employment rights in the first half of the twentieth century, and now a biography by Jennifer Holmes, A Working Woman: the Remarkable Life of Ray Strachey (Troubadour, 2019), traces her extraordinary journey.

Ray Strachey, unknown photographer, bromide print, 1908
NPG Ax160792 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Ray Strachey (she was officially named Rachel, but always known as Ray) was born in London in 1887, the first child of Frank Costelloe, an ambitious Irish barrister-journalist, and Mary Pearsall Smith, a Quaker from Philadelphia. Mary’s evangelical parents moved to England soon after their daughter’s marriage, which they never approved of. Ray’s sister Karin was born two years later, but the Costelloes’ marriage was unhappy, and Mary wanted to pursue her studies in art. She moved to Italy to live with, and later marry, the art historian Bernard Berenson.

Ray and Karin were brought up by their father Frank, who had ambitions to become a Liberal MP but died of cancer when Ray was twelve. Their Quaker grandmother Hannah Whitall Smith took over the girls’ care, along with their aunt Alys, who had married Bertrand Russell in 1894 (see NPG photo here). ‘Uncle Bertrand’ gave the teenage Ray weekly tutorials, which was a ‘terrifying, but elucidating’ experience, she recalled. But with his help, she passed the Cambridge entrance examination and began her studies in mathematics at Newnham College in 1905.

Her friend and fellow Newnham student Ellie Rendel, the granddaughter of suffrage pioneer Lady Strachey, introduced her to the campaign to obtain the vote for British women.  Ellie and Ray became ‘suffrage mad’, holding suffrage meetings and founding the Newnham’s first suffrage society. By 1908 three-quarters of the college had joined it, and their group merged with its counterpart at Girton College to become the Cambridge University Women’s Society for Women’s Suffrage. Instead of studying for their final examinations, Ray and Ellie spent hours stuffing envelopes and writing letters to former students, appealing for funds for the suffrage cause. Ray scraped through her exams and was placed last in the Newnham contingent that year, but she didn’t mind too much: ‘knowledge isn’t the only point of education’, she felt.

On 13 June 1908 Ray and Ellie rounded up 300 university supporters and proceeded through London carrying a pale blue silk banner designed by Mary Lowndes and hand-sewn by Newnham and Girton women with daisies and irises and the motto ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’. (This beautiful banner has been carefully preserved by Newnham College, where it is kept in a wooden case that is only opened on special occasions) There were several suffrage gatherings in London that summer, including a national ‘Women’s Day’ on 21 June, when a third of a million people packed into Hyde Park for a demonstration organized by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the increasingly militant organization led by the Pankhursts. ‘We were in a howling mob of hooligans, & it was great fun’ Ray wrote. She almost ‘lost her heart’ to the suffragettes (‘so repulsive as well as so fine!’), but followed her head and stayed loyal to Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who believed in peaceful, constitutional campaigning.

That July Ray and Ellie joined three other women and spent a month touring Britain in a horse-drawn caravan promoting ‘the cause’. They sold badges, distributed literature, wrote and delivered speeches, shopped, cooked and camped out in farmers’ fields. They encountered persistent rain in the Lake District, intense heat in Scotland and occasionally outright hostility, and local newspaper reporters were intrigued by the young women’s dedication to the suffragist cause. Ray’s speaking style captivated her listeners, including her aunt Alys Russell, who attended their final meeting in Oxford that summer. She described her niece as wearing ‘a butcher’s apron which she had borrowed to hide her torn and filthy dress, with bare sunburnt arms and a battered straw hat on the back of her head’. People were inclined to laugh at Ray’s appearance, Alys observed, ‘but she spoke so well, developing her theme with such clear logic, lightening her enthusiasm with so much humour, that she ended amidst hearty cheers from the crowd.’

Ray’s mother, Mary Berenson, now an established art expert, was less impressed. She longed for her daughter to embrace culture, not politics, and decided that she should spend a year at the prestigious Bryn Mawr women’s college near Philadelphia. Ellie Rendel won a scholarship and accompanied her friend to America, where they found an ally in Bryn Mawr’s President M. Carey Thomas, who was keen to promote the suffrage cause among American college women.

Carey Thomas took Ray and Ellie along with her to a suffrage convention in New York, where Ray’s speech about English suffragism so impressed Rev. Dr Anna Howard Shaw, the President of the National American Women Suffrage Association, that she immediately invited the two young women to accompany her to Colorado, one of the few states that had given women the vote. Morale was low in the American women’s movement and Shaw was convinced that a fresh approach was needed. Ray and Ellie would help her to ‘preach the cause’ in the states they passed through on the way there and back, including Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

At first it was an exciting adventure, and in her article for the Denver Daily News, Strachey described how wonderful it was to see women voting: ‘To us women who are struggling so hard on the right of suffrage, and who are willing to go to prison for our convictions, it seems marvellous that the Colorado women can take their voting for granted as much as they accept their right to go on a shopping trip or attend a musicale.’ But the truth was that, although their speeches went down well, the more of America she saw, the more despondent Strachey became about the point of promoting suffrage. ‘They are not awake enough here’, she told her grandmother, ‘all the meetings are drawing-room ones, and consist of the converted.’

A subdued Strachey and Rendel returned to their studies at Bryn Mawr in 1909, where their speeches to their fellow students were met with a lukewarm reception: ‘here was another subject to be learnt, another field of exploration to explore’. Then, on a trip to Boston in February 1909, they met 67-year-old William James. The subject of women’s suffrage came up, and was discussed in the familiar drawing-room manner, when suddenly the distinguished philosopher ‘burst out’ with a speech that Ray described in a letter to her family.

“How you must despise us all”, he said, “you two, who come all burning & snapping with your cause – with the whole thing rushing through you like electricity – & you find us everywhere – dull, uninterested, unenthusiastic, superficial, scoffing & frivolous about it  – just a great lump of unenlightened and commonplace humanity who won’t take this serious thing seriously”

He told them he was going to sign their petition “just for your sake… just to let you know that your enthusiasm does not meet with no response.”

Ray wrote that she could have kissed William James for his kindness. There was a long way to go before women achieved equal suffrage, but as Jennifer Holmes writes, Ray Strachey’s youthful American journey allowed her ‘to observe a suffrage movement from the outside, to hone the speaking skills which a suffrage activist needed, and to refine her ideas of what she wanted to do with her life.’

After marrying into the congenial Strachey family Ray thought she might be content with marriage and motherhood, but by 1913 she was back in the suffrage fray, giving a speech where she was pelted with mud and insults by the crowd. She described the experience as ‘very exciting, but nasty & dirty, & all due to mismanagement’ and so she threw herself into organizing the NUWSS’s wartime campaign, as well as placing women in war work ‘& trying to see that they don’t ruin the whole labour market by taking low wages’.

‘If we get the vote now,’ her aunt Alys Russell wrote in 1918, ‘it will be entirely due to her, because even Mrs Fawcett can’t do much without Ray’s driving energy.’ Among her many achievements, Strachey was responsible for the removal of the iron grille in front of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons, co-founded the Society of Woman Welders, wrote a history of the women’s movement called The Cause (1928), and her photograph appears on the plinth of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square. A Working Woman is an illuminating, extensively researched and well written biography, that is a fitting testament to Ray Strachey’s contribution to the fight for a more equal society.