On Hannah More and Speaking Truth to Power: Part 1

by Anna Blanch on January 12, 2009

In order for society to be evolving with positive ends it is always necessary for citizens to speak truth to power. Hannah More had some interesting friends. Some of them were very powerful. They were not powerful in the way many of the power brokers in today’s world, but as leaders in society, business, government, and the church, they had some serious “pull”. For context, it is helpful to note that we are dealing with the 1790’s – 1810’s.

More spoke persistently for over 10 years about the barbarity of the slave trade. She encouraged, cajoled, harangued, pushed, prodded, whispered, and plotted with British Prime Minister William Wilberforce over his entire campaign. Like anyone subject to the “encouragement” of a persuasive older relative (Mrs More (as she was referred to out of respect – she never married) was like an Aunt to Wilberforce) I am sure he didn’t always want to hear what she had to say. It should be noted that Wilberforce believed that abolition was an imperative but it was nonetheless a long, thankless struggle.

A less well known facet of More’s propensity to speak loudly about the causes she cared most about was her lobbying for a broader view of the importance of the education of women. Not just that women should be educated but that women’s education should be broad in focus and serious in intellectual depth. She advocated education in philosophy, languages, mathematics, as well as great works of classical literature, and theology. It is important to note that More’s writings on education were published a couple of years prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women which, since the 1970’s, has become the much more well known of the two women’s writing on the subject.

More’s interest and emphatic support for women to be taught various schools and facets of Mathematical science is of particular interest – More’s own facility for Geometry and Trigonometry was so advanced that he father ceased to teach her the subjects at age 9 because she was far surpassing the progress of her father’s male pupils. Despite being rather progressive in his insistence on educating his daughters in numerous languages (the anecdote is that Hannah, one of the younger daughters, annoyed her father incessantly to teach her latin – at the ripe old age of 4!) he did hold that women were essentially weaker minded and one must take care not to stress their fragile temperaments.

In appreciating my own education it is sobering to consider the many ways in which society has changed over the last 200 odd years. More has been a too often overlooked figure in speaking truth to power.

This is the first part of an ongoing series of posts on Hannah More and “Speaking Truth to Power”.

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