Papers of Mary Sheepshanks

Scope and Content

Typescript of autobiography 'The Long Day Ended' (1880s-1930s). These reminiscences provide interesting descriptions of South America in the 1920s, and of a chapter in the history of the Ukrainian fight for independence.

Administrative / Biographical History

Mary Sheepshanks was born in Liverpool in 1872, one of fourteen children. Her father, the Rev. Sheepshanks, was a Church of England vicar who, in 1890, became the Bishop of Norwich. She attended the Liverpool High School until she was seventeen and then was sent to Germany for a year before returning to attend Newnham College, Cambridge in 1892. On graduation, Sheepshanks became involved in social work in Southwark for the Women's University Settlement for two years. She continued this work in Stepney before becoming the Vice Principle, then Principle, of the Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women in 1897. In 1907 she asked Emmeline Pankhurst to give a lecture on women's suffrage at the College and began the practice of organising women-only meetings for female students as well as holding college debates and lectures on the topic. In 1908 she attended the International Woman Suffrage Association congress which took place in Holland and by 1913 had been asked to undertake a lecture tour of Western and Central Europe for the organisation. This culminated in her attendance at the IWSA's 1913 meeting in Budapest, where she was asked to become the IWSA's secretary in London and where she also edited its journal, 'Jus Sufragii'.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Sheepshanks maintained a pacifist stance while the major suffrage societies undertook war work despite, a few months before, having worked with her on the International Manifesto of Women and the demonstrations for peace in August 1914. In October, she was the one who signed an editorial in 'Jus Suffragii' entitled 'Patriotism or Internationalism' which attacked the war. However, when Belgium was overrun, she organised aid to Belgian refugees and helped stranded German women find safe refuges through her International Women's Relief Committee. Through her editorship, 'Jus Suffragii' maintained a strictly neutral position throughout the conflict while attacking the war itself. This led her into difficulties that came to head over the International Women's Peace Conference held in The Hague in 1915 and which caused a damaging split within the suffrage movement. Like many, Sheepshanks applied for a passport to attend but was unable to attend due to the closure of the North Sea shipping lanes. Instead, Sheepshanks concentrated on the question of post-war reconstruction, working with the Union of Democratic Control and celebrated the coming of the Russian Revolution in 1917 in the pages of 'Jus Suffragii'. However, after the end of the war, Sheepshanks resigned from its editorship and became the secretary of the Fight the Famine Council, lobbying the League of Nations meting at Geneva on its behalf in 1920. She also became a member of the British executive committee of the Women's International League at this time. They following year she took a holiday to South America and studied the economic and social conditions in the area, returning to Europe via the United States.

In 1927, Sheepshanks became the International Secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom at their office in Geneva, monitoring the cases of political prisoners and attending meetings of the League of Nations Council on its behalf. In September 1928 she led a deputation of the WILPF to the Secretariat of the League to present a memorandum on disarmament before organising a conference on the use of modern chemical weapons and their use against civilian s in Frankfurt-am-Maine the following January. In September 1930 she organised a conference on statelessness attended by the International Council of Women, the Society of Friends, the International Suffrage Alliance, the League of Rights for Man and the League of Nations Union. However, she resigned from the post in December due to disagreements over policy between her and the more left-wing French and German members of the Executive Council. However, she remained a member and was commissioned in November of that year to carry out a fact-finding mission alongside Helen Oppenheimer to East Galicia and Poland to investigate reports of atrocities carried out by the government. Here she carried out covert interviews before reporting back and publicising their finding throughout Europe.

She moved back to London in 1932 where, two years later, she became interested in the question of the status of women and created a report on the admission of omen to the diplomatic and consular services. During the 1930s, Sheepshanks became involved with organising relief for child victims of the Spanish Civil War and her home became a safe-house for refugees. During the Second World War, she renounced her pacifism in the face of the threat of Nazism, gave English classes and discussion groups for female refugees and was employed as a German translator by the BBC. Chronic arthritis, blindness and the need to undergo an operation for cancer blighted her later years and it was as a form of therapy that her doctor suggested to her that, at the age of 83, she might write her still unpublished autobiography. She died in 1958.

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Related Material

The records of the British Branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom are also held by the Women's Library (Ref. GB 106 5/WPF).