Her face slips from hand to hand
There are several telling moments in the biography of Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) that made her only the second woman (after Florence Nightingale) to appear on a Bank of England banknote.
She looks rather stodgy on the five-pound note, with her hair under a high cap, but she dared to go into English prisons to meet desperate, violent women and then she forced polite society to face those women and treat them differently. Stodgy does not describe Elizabeth and her innovations.
In the polite society of today it is considered politically incorrect if not wicked to bring more than two children into the world. Born on May 21st 1780, Elizabeth was the fourth of twelve children. In a direct riposte to the idea that having too many children is bad for the world, four of her brothers and sisters became famous for their philanthropy and reform work, including Louisa, the seventh child, who became a famous author and educator.
In today's politically correct world, women are supposed to work at jobs away from home and take care of their babies when they return home exhausted. In many parts of the world, they have no other choice if they are going to eat. In contrast, Elizabeth's mother, Catherine Bell, was able to dedicate herself to her children. Their education was inspiring -
. . .rich in play, adult converse, and a variety of experiences. . . The children had the freedom of the Earlham library, which included Rousseau, Voltaire, and Paine. They were permitted to explore other religious traditions, and had both Unitarian and Roman Catholic friends (Oxford DNB).
The family belonged to the Friends' Meeting, but like many people in Britain in the 1790s, they were not religious. They 'began to share the feeling—common among the élite—that religious feeling was something to look down on'.
Elizabeth was not inclined to look down on anyone. In another telling biographical detail that would shape her life, she was seventeen when she ''felt there [was] a God’. She quickly and courageously made her views known to a shocked society. She adopted plain Quaker dress and speech and became truly faithful in her thoughts and actions to the light that guided her. Exactly what that guidance is revealed below.
Elizabeth was twenty when she married. She and her husband raised eleven children, but despite her 'busy' family life (an understatement - overwhelming would seem more like it), she distributed clothing, food, and medicine to poorer members of the community and eliminated smallpox among the children of neighbouring villages by insisting on vaccination. In 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister. Her 'warm-hearted' husband supported her, but they both experienced tension when her activities took her away from home.
As they did on that day in 1813 when she first entered Newgate and found hundreds of women and children - young and old, hardened criminal and first-offenders - huddled in three filthy rooms. It took her several years to help them to achieve positive transformation, made possible by actions which the politically correct world, in its greater wisdom, has discarded, thereby insuring that, first, prisoners are not inspired to change and that, second, the prison population continues to grow. I am sorry to sound cross, but In biology this is retrogression. In human history it's a tragedy. Elizabeth's inspired actions achieved quite different results.
Politically incorrect innovations
The first, and perhaps least important, thing that Elizabeth did was to improve the prisoners' housing and food. The second was to arrange teaching for the children. The third was to establish matrons for the women prisoners who were prisoners themselves. They were elected by the women. The fourth was to insist that the prisoners be treated with justice and respect, and be taught to read and write. The fifth was to provide religious education. The sixth was to hold the women prisoners to high standards of integrity and dignity. Elizabeth did not believe in the depressingly patronizing politically correct idea that certain people just can't help stealing or acting like fools. She believed people can be ethical no matter how poor they are. She believed that every person possessed wisdom and could make changes for the better. The seventh was to get the women working and to pay them for their work.
All this added up to responsibility. At its heart being responsible means being able to respond. It is intricately linked to our sense of self-worth and to excellence, justice and happiness.
Elizabeth Fry's reforms worked. She had great successes in prison reform around Britain. She began the first nationwide women's organization, which organized on behalf of women prisoners. Her husband went bankrupt when his bank failed, but she continued to advocate for prisoners and against injustice. She loathed solitary confinement for prisoners and argued against its degrading effects.
Naturally the politically correct found her ideas old-fashioned and ditched the religious teaching. What point is there in teaching prisoners that there is a God who cares about whether you and I are honest? Even before she died, many people criticized her, alleging that 'she was neglecting her duties as a wife and mother in order to conduct her humanitarian work'.
Elizabeth died of a stroke at 65. Her face slips from hand to hand. Her ideas are buried, but not lost.
Quotes from Oxford's DNB.