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International Women's Day 2018

In honour of International Women's Day 2018, this week's blog pays tribute to some of the inspirational women whose burial records are held in the Deceased Online database.


8 March each year marks International Women's Day. The event commemorates the movement for women's rights, and dates from 1909 when a day of observance was held in New York. That day was organised by the Socialist Party of America, but today events take place all over the world. They include talks, marches, conferences, fun runs, concerts, festivals and online digital gatherings. Throughout the day, actions and thoughts are focused on women living now and those who inspire us from the past. Among the billions of inspirational women who are no longer with us are remarkable women whose lives continue to be remembered by historical researchers and family historians. 

This year's theme is #PressforProgress. Below I explore a few of the amazing women in the Deceased Online database who pressed for progress in their lifetimes.
Self-portrait done in needlwork of Mary Morris Knowles, c.1776 (Royal Collection)
Mary (Morris) Knowles (1733-1807) is buried in Bunhill Fields, London. Although she was a significant social reformer and radical thinker of the late 18th century, she has been overlooked in recent times. 

Born into a prosperous Quaker family in Staffordshire in 1733, the young Mary Morris grew up a strong-minded girl and was well-educated in the Classics, poetry, science, French, theology and the arts. She maintained throughout her life that girls should receive a scientific education. She married Thomas Knowles, a physician, at the relatively late age of 34, after insisting that she should choose her own spouse. She is celebrated for her skill in needlework, but was also active outside the home as a strong supporter of abolition for the slave trade and slavery.

Well-connected with notable literary and political figures of the Enlightenment, Mary used one social occasion in 1778 to confront the notorious Samuel Johnson in defence of women's liberty and to #PressforProgress in this area. After the death of her husband, who had begun to be involved in the abolition movement, Mary subscribed to the London Abolition Committee, then focused on ending the slave trade. Before the abolition movement in the UK was well-established, Mary was already campaigning against the widely-used tobacco produced by slaves. She wrote the following lines to be printed on a tobacco box in protest of slavery:
Tho various tints the human face adorn
To glorious Liberty Mankind are born;
O, May the hands which rais'd this fav'rite weed
Be loos'd in mercy and the slave be freed!

The cremation entry for Joan Violet Robinson in Cambridge City Council's records. Her occupation is given simply as "Retired".
Perhaps less celebrated for her politics, is the revolutionary Irish poet, Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, née Elgee (1821-1896) who lies buried in Kensal Green. Raised in County Wexford, Lady Wilde used her poetry to #PressforProgress Irish independence and to criticize the British government. Like Emmeline Pankhurst, she campaigned for women's rights, and like Mary Knowles, she argued for better education for women. Despite her anti-British feelings, the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde, and the discovery of his near bankruptcy, led Lady Wilde to move to London, near her sons, Willie and Oscar. 
The burial entry of "Wilde, Jane F S Lady" is found online in the records of Kensal Green Cemetery

She continued writing while living with her journalist son, Willie, in Oakley Street, Chelsea. Devastated by the imprisonment of her more famous son, the playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Jane succumbed to bronchitis on 3rd February 1896, after her request to see him was refused. Although Oscar paid for her funeral, he could not afford a headstone and Jane lies buried in a common grave. In 1999, the Oscar Wilde Society erected a Celtic Cross monument in her memory.
Entry for Alice Johnson in the Register of Cremation for Cambridge City Crematorium January 1940
There are a number of inspirational female scientists recorded in the Deceased Online database. Most deserve to be better known than they are. Among these is zoologist and educator, Alice Johnson (1860-1940), who was cremated at Cambridge City Crematorium on the 16th January 1940. Johnson had been born in Cambridge into an academic family. Her father was a schoolmaster and her brother became a logician. Helped by a supportive family, Johnson was able to enter Newnham College in 1878, where she studied the Natural Sciences Tripos. She went on to work as a demonstrator at the Balfour Laboratory, where she #PressedforProgress for women in education, particularly science. Her later research into the early development of the newt was published by the Royal Society. However, from 1890 she was as a private secretary to Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, firstly when Sidgwick led research at the Society for Psychical Research and then when she became principal of Newnham College in 1892. Johnson became an associate of Newnham in 1893. She died in Cambridge, aged 79, on the 13th January 1940.

Not all inspirational women of the past are well-known or celebrated with titles and grand appointments. Many of us have female ancestors who have influenced us in various ways - be it for their hard work, loving nature, tenacity, or ability to overcome difficulties. Some of these women may not be of significance to anyone outside of their family. Many lie in unmarked graves. Nonetheless, they remain important to their descendants.

Who are you celebrating for IWD2018? Do you have any inspirational female ancestors who pressed for progress? Have you found any of their details on Deceased Online? Do get in touch to tell us about them. We love to hear from you in the Comments Box below, or via our Facebook and Twitter pages!

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