Harriet Law

On this date in 1831, Harriet Teresa Law (née Frost) was born in County Essex, England. The daughter of a small farmer, she was raised as a Calvinist “Strict Baptist” and taught Sunday school. In the 1850s she began debating with freethinkers such as George Holyoake but in the process “saw the light of reason” in 1855 and embraced atheism and feminism and became a salaried speaker for the secularist movement while her husband Edward, also a freethinker, stayed home to care for their four children.

Law was president of the Freethought League in 1869 and was repeatedly elected to (but declined) the position of vice president of the National Secular Society. She bought the Secular Chronicle in 1876 and edited the paper, assisted by her daughter, until 1879. She wrote In her first month as editor, “[T]he Bible does assign women a distinct, and what is worse, a subordinate sphere, rendering her subject to man in nearly every relationship of her life.” She gave the paper a broader scope and published profiles of women freethinkers but sold it because it was losing too much money.  

Shortly after that, Law retired from public activities but remained a freethinker until her death. Her early retirement may have been due to ill health but was also partly a result of having been gradually edged out of the movement by Charles Bradlaugh, whose well-known hostility to socialism no doubt added to his already strained relationship with Law. She had also criticized his authoritarian style of leadership.

Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter, said Law was one of the first women to recognize “the importance of a woman’s organisation from the proletarian point of view,” adding, “When the history of the labour movement in England is written, the name of Harriet Law will be entered into the golden book of the proletariat.” (Marx, Engels & Lapides, 1990.) She died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1897.

Freedom From Religion Foundation