Kickass Women in History: Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor was one of Charlotte Bronte’s best friends. She was a businesswoman, and author, and an ardent and vocal feminist. She had good business sense mixed with an adventurous spirit, which let her to study in several European countries, sell cattle and run a store in New Zealand, and climb Mont Blanc in Switzerland. Over time, her fame has been eclipsed by Charlotte’s, but Mary was so much more than just “Charlotte’s friend.”

Mary was born in 1817. Her parents sent her to Roe Head School, where Mary met Charlotte Bronte and Ellen Nussey. The three friends were inseparable. Of the three, Mary was the most restless and the most intellectual. Charlotte was the most imaginative. Ellen was the most empathetic and emotionally supportive of the three. The three friends exchanged letters throughout their entire lives.

When Mary’s father died, the family fell into financial trouble. Mary was determined to earn her own living. Furthermore, she rejected the pursuits that were most commonly open to women of her class. She told Charlotte that she “cannot and will not be a governess, a teacher, a milliner, a bonnet-maker, nor a housemaid.” Mary moved to New Zealand in hopes of new economic opportunities.

Photo of an older Mary, with a white cap
Mary Taylor

Mary lived in Wellington, New Zealand with her brother and then with friends. She and her cousin, Ellen Taylor, opened a shop together. Mary enjoyed the work and the shop was very successful. They also bought and sold cattle as well as property. When Mary finally returned to Yorkshire, she was a financially secure woman.

During her Yorkshire years, Mary was a prolific and controversial author whose work was most often found in magazines. She wrote articles in which she championed the idea that women could and should make their own living, and that women should not marry for money. She also fought the prevailing view that a woman’s duty was to sacrifice herself for others.

In addition to the many articles she wrote, Mary wrote two books. Swiss Notes By Five Ladies tells the true story of one of Mary’s trips to Switzerland. Mary organized these trips for herself and her friends every year. The book documents a trip during which the five women, including Mary who was almost sixty years old at the time, climbed Mont Blanc.

Mary Taylor and her friends, outfitted for mountain climbing
Mary Taylor and Friends

Her last book, Miss Miles: or, a Tale of Yorkshire Life Sixty Years Ago was a fictional story that uses the lives of its characters to demonstrate the need for women to have economic opportunities. It took her forty years to write it and was finally published in 1890.

Mary died in 1893 at the age of 76. She never married but seemed to have a happy, prolific life with friends and family. It is in part because of her efforts that it is socially acceptable today for a woman of any class to get a job.

My thanks to:

The Bronte Parsonage Museum

Teara: Encyclopedia of New Zealand


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