Stop 4 – Friends Meeting House, Victoria Terrace
The Society of Friends (image above) – popularly known as the Quakers – is a religious organisation with pacifism and a desire for social justice at the heart of its foundation. Quakers in Britain campaign for equality through three specific areas of social justice: migrant and refugee rights, housing conditions, and a more compassionate criminal justice system. For Quakers, and also for the members of Augustine, politics is about making lives better, especially for those who live on society’s margins or who are without power in their relationships. And there are different ways of doing politics.
We first meet Ethel Moorhead in December 1910. Dubbed “Dundee’s Rowdiest Suffragette”, Ethel threw an egg at Winston Churchill, the city’s MP.
Churchill was the Liberal government’s Home Secretary at the time. He was addressing a women’s political meeting in Dundee, and extolling the merits of the “gallant Liberal Party”. Though Churchill was seen by his party as a social reformer, according to one report, “Miss Moorhead rose and reminded him that the said gallant party was forcibly feeding women in prison, and to express her indignation she threw an egg at the Home Secretary who had ordered this brutal treatment.”
Until this point, Ethel (born in 1869, so now in her 40s) was best known as a painter of portraits (image left), and in later life she’d return to Paris, where she co-edited The Quarter, an arts journal that featured some of the most famous poets and writers of the day.
But the 1910 incident marked her emergence as an activist of the first order. She was arrested for attempted arson at Traquair House in the Borders; and she was probably the woman who escaped capture when Lord Kitchener’s niece, Fanny Parker, tried to blow up the Burns Cottage in Alloway. Ethel was imprisoned for her actions on several occasions and became known for smashing cell windows, throwing buckets of water over guards and flooding passageways. But in 1913, while imprisoned in Calton Jail (image below) she became first Scottish suffragette to be forcibly fed – the very policy over which she had vented her anger at Churchill.
“Force feeding” was a brutal undertaking which had an awful physical impact on women’s bodies. Ethel’s case aroused considerable public outrage in Scotland and women protested and waved flags outside the jail each day. When Ethel was eventually released, suffering from double pneumonia, the Liberal MP for Leith lost his seat as a consequence after people saw Ethel being stretchered into a local doctor’s house.
Nearer to our own time, another woman who made a lasting impact on the lives of others was Ruth Adler (image below), who died aged only 49 in 1994. Ruth did politics through organisations and by embodying the fundamental Jewish ethic of justice.
According to her close friend, Fran Wasoff, “family history informed so much of what Ruth would do.” Her parents, who were lawyers in Germany, had both just qualified as judges in the year that Nazi legislation banned Jews from that role.Deprived of their livelihoods, they came to Britain as refugees in the 1930s. Later, three cousins who survived the Holocaust were taken in by her family in London. Just as championing the underdog was a hallmark of Ruth’s adult life, so was hospitality. At her funeral it was said: “Ruth cared and she had room.”
Ruth moved to Scotland with her husband Michael Adler in 1971. Here, in her short but incredibly active life, she put her beliefs into action in countless ways: as an enthusiast for Jewish culture, a feminist, a human rights campaigner and a child welfare advocate. For Ruth, it was important that there were organisations to underpin justice.
She was one of the founders of Scottish Women’s Aid in 1974, which set up the first women’s refuge in Scotland. She saw this as a feminist initiative; a practical response to violence against women in marriage or partnerships. She sat as a member of Lothian Region Children’s Panel for nine years; and in 1983 she helped establish the Scottish Child Law Centre. In 1991, Ruth became the first Development Officer for Amnesty International in Scotland, with offices in the Student Centre in Bristo Square, passed earlier in this pilgrimage.
All this work drew on her formidable academic skills (she had gained a PhD from Edinburgh University’s Law School in double quick time, while parenting young children). It was also informed by her belief that what she stood for should be translated into practical action, particularly to support those who are vulnerable.
She loved organising and “wanted to get on with the job” – but at the same time family and friends alike say she was always there for you. Individuals were important to Ruth Adler; not just organisations or movements.
The lives of both Ethel Moorhead and Ruth Adler are two very different demonstrations that politics isn’t just for “politicians”. For Ethel Moorhead, protest-by-action became the only way forward. She said: “How beggarly appear arguments before a defiant deed.” On the other hand, as one obituary put it, Ruth Adler believed that “for rights to be protected and justice achieved sound theory and individual commitment are not enough; organisations are needed”.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus finds himself questioned by a Samaritan woman at the village well. Jews considered Samaritans to be a second-class people, and presumably the women were even more so. Yet this woman enters into debate with Jesus, confidently and thoughtfully. She is claiming the right to share in the experience of justice and joy that Jesus speaks about. Is she also, in fact, a model for political engagement? In what ways are we – or could we be – “political”? Can we identify situations in which we, as individuals, might bring faith to bear in the realm of politics, sowing (as the Augustine motto has it) “seeds of justice and joy for people and planet”?
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Mary Henderson’s online biography of Ethel includes a detailed and upsetting account of the treatment Ethel and others like her suffered. This is a helpful document to read, as the simple phrase “force feeding”, alone, doesn’t express the brutality of what was involved and the awful physical impact on the women’s bodies.