Friday, 30 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Further thoughts on Women Chartists

The part women played in the Chartist movement involved, in the main, indirect supportive activities, but also some very direct and organised activities. The ways in which women participated appear to have been constrained to some extent by the domestic ideals of the time[1]. In the north, the principal Chartist leader was Feargus O’Connor who instigated and became proprietor of The Northern Star based in Leeds[2]. O’Connor attended mass meetings organised by Halifax Chartist leaders such as Ben Rushton. Many of the smaller meetings possibly excluded many women as the meetings tended to occur in alehouses where primarily working class men met. Queenshead was renowned for its beer shops which, though seen by local magistrates in 1836 as ‘strongholds of the devil’, did in fact provide meeting places for one the earliest radical groups[3].  However, women did attend mass meetings either with fellow male Chartists, or by themselves. One such meeting reported on by The Northern Star in 1847 records a meeting of 2,000 women Chartists at Oddfellows’ Hall, Halifax on August 9th.

In the late 1830s, women appeared to be primarily concerned with opposition to the New Poor Law legislation. In 1839, the Female Political Union in Nottingham, headed by Mary Savage, represented an elderly woman who had been sent to stone-breaking by the Poor Law authorities. They held protest meetings and provided financial help for her[4].  In February 1838, some members of the Elland female association took it upon themselves to roll in the snow a commissioner whose intention was to set up new procedures in Yorkshire for implementing the new Poor Law[5].  This association, led by Elizabeth Hanson preceded the Charter, but subsequently supported Chartism by donating funds to the first Chartist Convention. The Bradford Female Radical Association was formed in 1839 and comprised factory workers, woolcombers and weavers who were probably the wives and daughters of male Chartists. In fact, over 100 female radical associations were recorded in the first few years of the Chartist movement which suggests independent activities on the part of women at the beginning of the movement.

However, enfranchisement for women was not part of the Chartist agenda, even though the movement relied to a large extent on the activities of women, for example in exclusive dealing. Exclusive dealing was in effect the boycotting of tradesmen and shopkeepers who did not support the Charter. Women, who tended to do most of the shopping, were instrumental in maintaining pressure on these non-supporters. In August 1839, the Northern Star newspaper reported: ‘The female radicals of the Bradford district, amounting to upward of 600, walked in procession through the principal streets…at the head of the procession there was carried by a woman a large printed board with the words “exclusive dealing”.[6]

Some women did speak out about enfranchisement and in 1839, Elizabeth Neeson of the London Democratic Association, argued for women’s suffrage by pointing out that if a woman can be given the task of ruling a nation then why shouldn’t women be free to rule themselves?[7]  Though some Chartists advocated enfranchisement for all adults, the arguments put forward by men usually alluded to domestic ideals to which women were expected to aspire. Industrialisation was possibly seen as not only a threat to family life which had started to fragment as a result of labour moving from the home into the factories, but also a threat to male employment. J. R. Richardson’s paper, The Rights of Women, on the one hand, argues that women’s increasing contribution to the nation’s wealth through industry was a good enough reason for their having a right to parliamentary representation, yet on the other hand, refers to factories as ‘hideous dens’ and both female and child labour as ‘slavery’ from which they should be freed[8]. As if to underline the importance of women in domestic life Richardson argued that only widows and spinsters should be allowed enfranchisement implying that married women were be expected to agree with their husband’s political preferences.

The emphasis on the family by the Chartist movement is not surprising considering the economic climate of the late 18th century when, for the family to survive, most members had to work. Traditionally women’s work had always been low status and low paid[9].  However, the Chartist movement did not seek to improve women’s low wages even in the factories. In fact they sought to resolve this issue, in part, by supporting Richard’s Oastler’s movement for the Ten Hours Bill. This, it was thought, would not only reduce the misery of women and children who currently worked twelve or more hours a day, but would hopefully mean more men would be needed to take their places in the factories and mills.

In 1842, parliament rejected the second Chartist petition. In the same year, in a provocative article in The Halifax Guardian, Edward Akroyd, now one of the leading industrialists in Halifax, was quoted as saying that ‘machinery was a blessing’. These events galvanised local Chartists into supporting the strikes and plug riots that were spreading from Lancashire across the region. On August 15th a procession of several thousand strikers entered Halifax singing Chartist hymns. Women headed the procession, four abreast, and the strikers dispersed after being directed to local mills by a man on horseback. On the same day a larger procession arrived from Bradford[10].  Again the procession comprised a large proportion of women many of which were ‘poorly clad and walking barefoot’ who stood in front of the military and dared them to kill them if they liked. In fact women appear to have been subjected to the same violence as men in these demonstrations. Undisciplined Specials were reported to have ‘broken the heads’ of some women that day. That women who were prepared to fight and even go to prison is illustrated by the actions of Elizabeth Cresswell, a 43 year old framework knitter who was arrested in Mansfield during a demonstration in support of the National Holiday. She was found to be carrying a loaded revolver and spare ammunition. In 1839, a delegate reported to a meeting in Lancashire that the women he represented were ‘in a state of progress, and were purchasing pikes in large numbers’. 

Women also involved themselves through other more practical activities such as banner making, providing presents for visiting speakers at meetings, holding tea parties, teaching in local Chartist schools etc.[11]  For example a description of a soiree held in honour of Ernest Jones (the first Chartist candidate for the Halifax Borough) included the fact that the hall was decorated with banners that displayed slogans and portraits of radical leaders. The women who attended the soiree wore green ribbons and even green dresses[12]. Some male Chartists appear to have felt more comfortable with the domestic involvement of women within the movement rather than with those who directly took part in processions and demonstrations. Another example of this ambivalent attitude is an article in 1839 in the radical Scottish Patriot newspaper. On the one hand, the writer praised the formation of a new radical female group in Scotland, but on the other wished the Chartist movement did not have to rely on the political activity of women. These women could best serve the Chartist cause by remaining at home with their families. The writer further argued that Chartists should not drag women away from the family home like the aristocracy had done by forcing them into factory labour.  The idea that men should be allowed the dignity of being the family breadwinner prevailed, even though women had always contributed to the family income, either informally, e.g. through casual work such as back-street brewing, child-minding etc. or through home-based proto-industrial employment which usually required input from the whole family.

Women also appear to have been instrumental in facilitating the emergence of temperance within the Chartist movement. For example the Nottingham women’s friendly societies were very keen to move from their alehouse meeting place to other meeting rooms in the area unconnected with drinking alcohol[13].   Temperance meetings may possibly have been encouraged by the Chartist leaders as a means of adding respectability to Chartist meetings and also as a way of encouraging more family involvement. The growing emphasis on temperance may also have been a deliberate attempt to rally more middle class support by emphasising the domestic family unit as a Chartist’s ideal. One of the first temperance groups was formed at Queenshead, having also been the location of one of the first radical groups[14].

Women did not appear to thrive as leaders within the Chartist movement. This was possibly a result of domestic constraints in that they were unable to travel far and stay away from the family home overnight and their lack of skills in public speaking. Their lack of political ambition may also have resulted from the perceived notion that such ‘political’ women, especially single women, were considered too ‘bold and forward’. They therefore wanted to protect their jobs and their reputations as much as possible. In Bradford, in 1845, a Miss Ruthwell who was treasurer to the Power Loom Weavers Society gave a remarkable speech describing the victimisation of herself, her sister and father who were all sacked from their jobs for being active members of the Society. Some women were able to move beyond these constraints such as Anna Pepper, secretary to an association of women in Leeds, who spoke at various meetings in the West Riding and even in London[15].

Women clearly did not shy away from active participation in the Chartist movement, though the extent to which they took a lead in it was much less marked. At the beginning of the movement many working-class women were more focused on opposition to the New Poor Law and matters closer to the family and home. They appeared to organise more independently of men. This may have been because their initial concerns differed or it may have been that women were discouraged from meeting with their male peers because in the early years these revolved around beer shops. It appears to have been a natural step to take for early female radical associations to support the mainstream Chartist movement either financially or by giving support at mass demonstrations. Significantly the issues that affected women, such a low factory wages or even female enfranchisement were not of any serious concern to the mainstream Chartists. Even J.R. Richardson in his The Rights of Women seems to have failed to realise that if every working woman, married or not, was able to vote as well as every working man the political strength of the working class would be even greater. It seems that many of the women who were involved in the movement saw themselves as supporting their husbands, brothers and fathers in their struggle. Women were generally encouraged to believe that they should be spared the indignity of working in the factories and allowed to devote their time to their homes and families. However, many of the women who worked in the factories were single and possibly even pleased to gain some independence from their families. It appears that some women wanted to become more politically involved in the Chartist movement, and were well qualified to do so. However due to their domestic ties they were unable to participate to any great extent in the National Charter Association and this constrained promotion of their own ideas and needs.


[1] On the role played by women see the collection of papers edited by Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson Women in British Politics 1760-1860: The Power of the Petticoat, Macmillan, 2000 that places protest by women in a broader context. Helen Rogers Women and the People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England, Ashgate, 2000 pages 80-123 is an excellent study of the role of women within the Chartist movement and is part of an extremely important study placing women within the radical tradition. Anna Clark The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class, University of California Press, 1995 seeks to place the struggle of working class women within the broader struggles of the working class. On women and Chartism, there are two specific studies: David Jones ‘Women and Chartism’, History, volume 68, (1983) is less critical and Jutta Schwarzkopf Women in the Chartist Movement, Macmillan, 1991 is a more detailed, but not entirely satisfactory, study.

[2] G.R. Dalby ‘The Chartist Movement in Halifax and District’ Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society, (1956), page 94.

[3] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, pages 244-245

[4] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, page 137.

[5] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, page 134.

[6] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, page 135.

[7] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, page 120.

[8] D. Thompson The Early Chartists, Macmillan, 1972, pages 115-127.

[9] June Purvis Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945, UCL Press, 1995, page 29.

[10] D.G. Wright The Chartist Risings in Bradford, Bradford Libraries and Information Service, 1987, page 30.

[11] Eileen Yeo ‘Some Practices and Problems of Chartist Democracy’, in J. Epstein and D. Thompson (eds.), The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture 1830-60, Macmillan, 1982 page 350.

[12] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, page 141.

[13] Anna Clark ‘The Rhetoric of Chartist Domesticity: Gender, Language and Class in the 1830s and 1840s’, Journal of British Studies, volume 31, (1992), pages 62-88.

[14] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, pages 122-123.

[15] D. Thompson The Chartists. Popular politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood, 1984, page 245.

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