Helen Blackburn, feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, especially in the field of employment, is born in Knightstown, County Kerry, on May 25, 1842. She is also an editor of The Englishwoman’s Review.
Blackburn is the daughter of Bewicke Blackburn, a civil engineer from County Kerry, and Isabella Lamb of County Durham in North East England. When her family moves to London in 1859, she soon comes into contact with the women of the Langham Place Group, especially Jessie Boucherett and Emily Faithfull.
Over the years Blackburn and Boucherett work together in a number of endeavours. Both are editors of The Englishwoman’s Review. Together they establish the Women’s Employment Defence League in 1891 to defend women’s working rights against restrictive employment legislation. Together they also edit The Condition of Working Women and the Factory Acts, 1896.
Blackburn joins the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872 and is secretary of the executive committee of the Society from 1874 to 1880. She subsequently holds similar positions in a number of related organisations. She also takes opportunities to study, taking a class in Roman Law at University College London in 1875, and later (1886–88) classes at University College, Bristol. In the early 1890s, she assists Charlotte Carmichael Stopes in her writing of British Freewomen: Their Historical Privilege by supplying her own notes on the subject, then by purchasing the whole of the first edition in 1894. She retires in 1895 to care for her aged father, though later returns to take up her work.
Blackburn inspires and funds two collections. The first is an art collection in 1885 that includes pictures and work done by professional women to show the result of women’s industry. She is insistent that this not include voluntary or amateurish work but rather show the products of female professionals. This loan exhibition includes portraits of leading women like Florence Nightingale and Mary Carpenter. This is donated to the University of Bristol, but recent enquiries indicate that this work is now lost. Her second collection is focused on a book collection by women. The books are from her collection, friends and from second hand sources. Bookplates are commissioned and two bookcases which are decorated with paintings of Lydia Becker and Caroline Ashurst Biggs who had been the previous chairs of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. These bookcases are given to Girton College, Cambridge and are extant. In 1880 she is secretary of the West of England Suffrage Society in Bristol and is the main organizer of a large demonstration.
Blackburn’s long term connection with the women’s movement allows her to write her history of the Victorian women’s suffrage campaign, Women’s suffrage: a record of the women’s suffrage movement in the British Isles, with biographical sketches of Miss Becker, finished in 1902, shortly before her death the following year, at Greycoat Gardens, Westminster, on January 11, 1903. She is buried at Brompton Cemetery. She leaves her archives and the decorated book collection to Girton College, Cambridge. Her will also makes provisions for establishing a loan fund for training young women.
A collaboration with Nora Vynne, published in 1903, titled Women under the Factory Act, criticises legislators for treating women as if they have not the intelligence of animals. Blackburn and Vynne argue that women should be allowed to take risks with their health in the workplace or they may find themselves always in need to protection as if they are incapable. The book is noted for its accuracy, but The Economic Journal recognises its authors as Freedom of Labour Defence members and suspects that it may have political motives arguing for the “equality of men and women.”
Blackburn’s name and picture, as well as those of 58 other women’s suffrage supporters, are on the pedestal of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.