This article is co-authored by Marzia Lanfranchi of Cotton Diaries and feminist writer and narrative investigator Virginia Vigliar

Women are interconnected with the clothing industry on so many levels. From the scrutiny that they get about their appearance, to being victims of human rights abuse to pioneering the sustainability movement; behind the textile industry is a feminist discourse.

If we asked you to think of three sustainable fashion icons, the probability that you would think of three females is very high. Women are undoubtedly at the forefront of the fight for sustainability in fashion, but did you know this goes back to the 1800s?

“Whilst the phrase ‘ethical consumption’ did not exist prior to the 1980s, the principle of sourcing products according to moral values has its roots in this period. This has important implications for today, for it helps us to understand how goods continue to be used to build political identity, and notions of self.”  

Cotton is king

Understanding how strongly related the textile industry was and still is to slavery gives us a basis to see how the free cotton movement played a major role in anti-slavery efforts and eventually the abolition of slavery.

One of the most commonly used phrases of the American economy in the mid- 1800s was “Cotton is King”. Historian and literary critic Henry Louise Jr writes that cotton became one of the first mass consumer commodities, also responsible for turning millions of black human beings into commodities.

Political Cartoon dating 1861.

“Britain, at the time the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over 80 percent of its essential industrial raw material.” not considering the millions of people involved in the cotton textile industry, historian Gene Dattell explains.

When the free cotton movement started in the 1800s, clothing began to have a connection with social justice that created one of the first sustainability movements.

Free Cotton

The free cotton movement was a sub-movement within the free produce movement, which was essentially an international boycott of goods produced through slave labour. The movement utilised non-violent endeavours to fight slavery in the 18th century and sought to determine the unseen costs of goods such as cotton, tobacco and sugar which came from the toil of slaves.

On a side note, the play on the word free here is more relevant than we might think; associating ‘free’ with a product might induce the consumer to think of it as without payment, whilst in this case the free signifies “not enslaved”, the fact that there is a double play on the word brings even more attention to the word “free”.

The movement was initiated by the members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), in the late 18th century. UK counterparts to the American Free Produce Society formed in the 1840s-1850s, under the leadership of Anna Richardson, a Quaker slavery abolitionist and peace campaigner based in Newcastle.

Image used by the Philadelphia female anti-slavery society

Philadelphian Quaker and anti-slavery activist, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler wrote “Slavery is sustained by the purchase of its productions. If there were no consumers of slave produce, there would be no slaves.” highlighting the intent and sentiment of the free produce movement and therefore the free cotton movement.

Women’s role

Recent papers about antislavery, mostly written by female researchers, state how historically the abolitionist movement has been portrayed as a male-led effort, forgetting the role of women. Luckily for us, the efforts of committed researchers have brought to life that women played a vital role in the antislavery movement and more specifically the fashion-related free cotton movement.

The role of women took many forms, from consumer advocacy to activism, to lecturing and producing art and literature to raise awareness.  In the UK, for example, a leaflet entitled ‘The Ladies’ Free-Grown Cotton Movement’ (1845), lists the names of ‘manufacturers and wholesale and retail drapers’ who sold free-grown cotton goods.

Also, at antislavery fairs, fashion was central; organisers took great care to procure beautiful wares, often imported from Europe, which appealed to women outside the abolition camp. It was hoped that, in the process of gratifying their material desires, these women would be exposed to antislavery messages and persuaded to actively support emancipation. Women raised substantial funds for political action and humanitarian aid for runaway slaves. The abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison is said to have praised female anti-slavery societies in part because they “paid at least half his bills in any given year.”

At the time, women’s presence in abolition politics was understood as an extension of the maternal compassion. Their efforts as being associated with female qualities, such as empathy and familial love, although this theory may ignore the power behind shared oppressions.

The social and political position of women undoubtedly affected their role in the abolitionist movement. Then, women were still considered second class citizens, not allowed to vote, divorce or open bank accounts without the permission of their husbands.

But although excluded from formal positions of power within the national anti-slavery societies, they actually wielded considerable power at home; through the selection, or rejection, of slave-made or free labour products. Their efforts included boycotting slave-produced goods and selling luxury items to raise money for the cause.

Handwritten paper label, verifying product make from free labour cotton


Paper ticket issued by the American Free Produce Association. This was tied to rolls of free produce cotton, warranting it as genuine, dated 1840s.

The women of the revolution

Revolution and change happen on multiple levels, but a sad truth is that often those who work for change behind the limelight remain unknown. It is a historical trend that women have remained invisible and often not recognized for their merits. The fact that we celebrate Women History month in March is a clear indicator of who has been left out of the history text books.

For example, much has been written about Clarks’ shoes and the shoemaking pioneer founder, James Clark, whilst the anti-slavery work of his Quaker wife, still goes unrecognised.

Black and white copy of an original photograph dating to 1858. The Clark family, dressed in free labor clothing.

Though her anti-slavery efforts and campaigning for free cotton spanned across various activities, her most notable contribution to the Free Cotton movement was probably the ‘Free Labour Cotton Depot’ she founded with her husband.  “Between 1853 and 1858 the ‘Street Depot’ sold a highly specialised range of cotton goods, chiefly cotton cloth by the yard. The goods were verified as ‘free labour,’ and made from cotton grown by waged, or ‘free’ labour, rather than slave labour.” reports A. P. Vaughan Kett.

Printed advertising circular for the ‘Free Labour Cotton Depot ‘in the Temperance Hall, in Street, 1853.

She also leveraged her tight network of Quakers women across the Atlantic and established a female philanthropic sewing society called ‘The Olive Leaf Society,’ that raised funds for the Connecticut peace and anti-slavery (male) campaigner, Elihu Burritt. In 1861, Eleanor wrote “Cotton,” (under the pen name “Eva,” which was a reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin) the essay where she critiqued the institution of slavery, discussed the matter of free or waged labour, but also the concerns over the American crisis, the risk of slave-labour in other countries and the opportunities to build a slave-free supply chain in West Africa.

Whilst there was awareness about slave-produced sugar, the fact that American cotton was not produced by free labour was still not widely discussed in the UK.

Sarah Parker Redmond (1826-1894) Abolitionist, suffragist and activist

Sarah Redmond, a free African American lecturer, came to the UK to raise awareness and campaign against slavery. In 1859 she gave a lecture, calling on women in particular to raise public opinion and support the work of the American abolitionists. She reminded them of the terrible abuses suffered by female slaves, and that Manchester’s own prosperity was based on slave-grown cotton.

‘We have states where, I am ashamed to say, men and women are reared, like cattle, for the market. When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 8,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the 125 millions of dollars’ worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.’

Considerable public awareness of free cotton was also raised by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most influential antislavery books, said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War“, recruited many women, who looked to Stowe for leadership in the anti-slavery movement.

These are just a few mentions to the women who gave considerable contribution to the movement, although influential, many others remain unknown. Precisely, what these women ultimately wanted to do was show consumers how their choices were having a direct impact on human rights violations. Is this sounding familiar yet?

What are we now?

Whether it is because of their compassionate nature or empathy, women are still today at the forefront of sustainable fashion. Women and clothing are still intricately linked in a web of inequality and misrepresentation.

Some people may believe that slavery is in the past, a crime that was fought against and laws eventually abolished. But slavery still exists today – as the Guardian stated “there are more people trapped in modern slavery than ever before in history. 40.3 million people are living in modern slavery – more than three times the figure during the transatlantic slave trade” and 71 percent of these are women.

Garment production is one of the most female-dominated industries in the world. We know that the majority of these females are low-paid, informal workers in developing countries where gender discrimination is deeply-rooted in the system. As a result, women working in the garment industry are more vulnerable than men to conditions of modern slavery, driven by the race to the bottom of unethical brands.

On the other side, is the fact that despite the majority of fashion being aimed at female consumers, most CEOs of big fashion brands are male. It is the women who are, instead, leading in the sustainability fight although we see signs of change in my day-to-day work, I still experience a big gap between the work that so many women put in bringing forward the sustainability discourse, and the representation and decision-making role that these women eventually play in the industry.

In the cotton industry, the disparity between men and women’s attendance is alarming. For example, recently I attended in the same week a leading sustainability conference and a high-level cotton conference. With the events so close to each other I was able to notice that the cotton industry still has a long way to go in terms of female representation (which I would say was as low as 10%) whereas the sustainability world has more representation but less women in positions of power.

Undoubtedly, there is still work to do. Sustainable fashion history teaches us that a gender conscious approach is key in moving forward. All brands must recognise the role that all women play and have played until now to fight for a fair and just fashion industry.


References used for this article and further reading:

Moral Fibre: Women’s Fashion and the Free Cotton Movement, 1830-1860

The Abolistionist Sisterhood

Sarah Parker Redmond and Anne Knight

Cotton vs Conscience

Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation

Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870

The Force of Fashion in Politics and Society

Manchester, cotton and anti-slavery

Empire of Cotton

Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

Why is the sustainable fashion movement being led by women?

How Women Are Leading the Sustainable Fashion Movement

The Women Leading Fashion Sustainability

The Fashion Industry Is One of the Biggest Supporters of Modern Slavery Across the Globe

Men Are Dominating Industries Aimed At Women—Here’s What To Do About It

Gender Equality Index

The Fashion Industry Is One of the Biggest Supporters of Modern Slavery Across the Globe

Towards change: ‘free-grown’ cotton

Pincushion, Am I not your Sister

The Charitable Work of Eleanor Clark in the 1850s and the 1870s: Quaker Women’s Networks, Sisters and Philanthropy

Quaker Women, the Free Produce Movement and British Anti-Slavery Campaigns: The Free Labour Cotton Depot in Street

Garment Production: The Female Face of Modern Slavery

One in 200 people is a slave. Why?

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