Lella Secor Florence – stepping up equalities campaigning in interwar Cambridge

Summary:

After being involved in the fight for votes for women in the USA, and an aborted attempt at bringing peace to Europe on Henry Ford’s 1915 peace mission, US political activist Lella Secor Florence came to Cambridge with her new British husband – the economist Philip Florence.

In their eight years here, she would found the first birth control clinic in Cambridge, write the first scientific report on the first 300 service users, and become one of the first woman members of the Cambridge Labour Party. For those of you interested, Lella’s personal papers are archived at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in Pennsylvania, USA.

The name of Lella Secor Florence only appeared on my radar with the appearance of her study of the first users of Cambridge’s birth control clinic opened in 1925 in the slums of Barnwell – close to where the Grafton Centre now is. The first book I bought about Lella is this one – about her early campaigning years in the run up to her arrival in Cambridge.

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Lella Secor – A diary in letters, 1915-1922. <– Click on the link to buy your own second hand copy, or have a look at the copy I’ve deposited in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The above diaries have been edited by Lella’s daughter-in-law Barbara Moench Florence, who I deduce married Lella and Philip’s son Noel. The book was published in 1978. Yet it is still an incredible read.

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Above – Miss Lella Secor in her 20s as a peace campaigner.

Miss Lella Faye Secor was born in 1887 in Michigan. Her mother opened a boarding house where Lella spent her teens helping her mother run it – her father abandoning the family when she was much younger.

The similarities between Lella and another Cambridge hero, Eglantyne Jebb are striking. Both were peace campaigners and pacifists, both had striking red hair and blue eyes, both campaigned for social reform in Cambridge, and both went into teaching shortly after completing their studies – but didn’t stick around for long.

Henry Ford’s Peace Ship

Lella Secor was a passenger and accredited as a reporter on Henry Ford’s Peace Ship – of which you can find more here at the University of Columbia, and here in the Henry Ford Collection. A number of pacifists tried to get to the Netherlands from the UK where the International Women’s Peace Conference was being held in 1915, but only three women managed to make the journey, the UK authorities refusing to issue passports or grant ships the passage to the Netherlands.

Women’s Peace Party

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From the same book, Lella was part of a group of activists calling not just for world peace, but overhauling international governance as well. One of the things that has been forgotten by mainstream history is the work and campaigning that women did to ensure they were included in the peace negotiations.

191211 Women League Of Nations Report

From the British Newspaper Archive – Florence Ada Keynes chairing a large discussion on the role of women in the League of Nations. Held at St Columba’s Church Hall in 1919, the venue is still there.

Lella and Philip

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Out of all of the husband and wife partnerships that I have read about, this is the one where I really get the sense that the husband went out of his way to support his wife’s campaigns – even at the risk of ridicule from those in his fellow profession. Remember that interwar Cambridge University still didn’t grant women the right to graduate with degrees – mainly due to the votes of returning church clerics from countryside parishes according to some sources. A number of college fellows and masters went out of their way to make clear their support for women’s rights by making college facilities available for meetings and social occasions.

I’ll leave the description of their feelings to a letter Lella wrote shortly after her marriage.

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She turned down his first proposal on the grounds that she was too busy campaigning and feared that she might not ever have time for married life. But they carried on courting and later accepted a follow-up proposal.

Lella on politics – an early member of Cambridge Labour Party

I was astonished to find that Lella was a very active member of the Cambridge Labour Party at a time when the party was still in its infancy – only formally constituted in the run up to the First World War. Unfortunately I’m not able to do keyword searches on local newspapers as the British Newspaper Archive has not yet scanned and uploaded local newspapers from Cambridge in the 1920s up to its online database. The Cambridgeshire County Archive that holds the early Cambridge Labour Party files is closed until the summer due to its controversial move out of Cambridge to Ely. It turns out she was a very high profile campaigner indeed – these from the postscript written by her daughter in law, Barbara.

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There’s an academic thesis waiting to be written on the impact that Lella Secor Florence had on Cambridge. I hope that it’s one that an early career researcher sponsored by one of our higher education establishments in Cambridge can undertake.


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