How-Martyn, Edith (1875–1954)

views updated

How-Martyn, Edith (1875–1954)

English reformer who co-founded the Women's Freedom League and worked in tandem with Margaret Sanger on birth-control issues. Born Edith How in Cheltenham, England, in 1875; died in a Sydney, Australia, nursing home on February 4, 1954; educated at the North London Collegiate School for Girls; obtained a degree from University College, Aberystwyth; earned a D.Sc. in economics from London University; married Herbert Martyn, in 1899.

Then a lecturer in mathematics at Westfield College, Edith How-Martyn was an early recruit to the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and was arrested in 1906 for attempting to make a speech in the lobby of the House of Commons, one of the organization's first members to be sent to prison. But How-Martyn was critical of the leadership of the WSPU. In 1907, she helped found the Women's Freedom League (WFL), along with Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard , and was its secretary until 1911, when she began heading the political and militant department. Though still militant in their approach, the members of the WFL insisted on non-violent means. How-Martyn urged women to refuse to pay taxes and to boycott the 1911 census.

Following the passage of the first suffrage bill in 1918, known as the Qualification of Women Act, How-Martyn stood unsuccessfully as an Independent Feminist candidate in that year's General Election. She had more success when she stood for the Middlesex County Council and became its first woman member.

How-Martyn also lent her energy to the birth-control movement led by Marie Stopes . She was particularly concerned with working-class women who were given little information on how to control the size of their families. In 1929, How-Martyn founded the Birth Control International Information Centre (BCIIC) with Margaret Sanger ; she also wrote The Birth Control Movement in England (1931) and accompanied Sanger on her travels through India in 1935–36, which included Sanger's widely publicized meeting with Mohandas Gandhi. The two worked well together for two decades and developed a brisk correspondence and a special friendship with Sanger writing: "You have a way of winning hearts and its really dangerous!… I love the notes you send & the interesting report & everything you do just like I like it done. We must have ruled a world together once Edith." In 1939, with war approaching, Edith How-Martyn moved to Australia; back home in England, her secretary Eileen Palmer (d. 1992) rescued her correspondence and files when the How-Martyn house was bombed. Following the war, How-Martyn's poor health kept her from returning to Britain; she died in a Sydney nursing home on February 4, 1954.


Correspondence between Sanger and How-Martyn in the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, New York University.

How-Martyn's letters to Margaret Sanger, Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

About this article

How-Martyn, Edith (1875–1954)

Updated About content Print Article