For some women Chartists, the movement allowed them to develop from being supporters of the demand for universal male suffrage to the claim for a public political role for themselves. They too might stress their domestic role, but that role carried the potential for what Anna Clark has called ‘militant domesticity’. Their view of domesticity tended not to carry the often sentimental rhetoric of male Chartists. Some working women, like the Glasgow weaver who described herself in 1838 as “a plain working woman”, or the Ashton female Chartists, did demand the vote for themselves. A few outstanding Chartist women - and these tended to come from middle- or lower middle-class backgrounds - did write and lecture on a political role for women. Susannah Inge and Mary Ann Walker of the City of London Female Chartist Association were both accomplished speakers and defended their own right to participate in the movement. Addressing a mixed audience was still a novel undertaking.
Source 9: ‘Miss Mary Ann Walker on the People’s Charter, The Northern Star, 10th December 1842, page 7
A crowded and most respectably composed meeting, convened by public advertisement, was held last Monday evening, in the spacious and elegant hall of the National or Complete Suffrage Association, High Holborn, for the purpose of hearing Miss Mary Ann Walker deliver a lecture on the social evils which afflict the state and on the People’s Charter as the remedy, and the only remedy, for the removal of those evils, and restoration of the happiness and independence of Great Britain and her dependencies.
The meeting was convened for 8 o’clock, and soon after that hour the hall began to fill rapidly in all parts. The meeting at this time began to manifest impatience to hear Miss Walker, by loudly stamping on the floor, as a signal to have the chair taken. Among the mass of persons present, was a large proportion of very elegantly dressed ladies, many of whom were of the superior classes of society.
At about ten minutes past 8 o’clock, a simultaneous burst of applause from all parts of the meeting, announced the presence of Miss Walker. She was attended by numerous friends, amongst whom we were glad to see the encouraging and supporting presence of many ladies; and as she advanced up the body towards the platform, the applause consisting of cheering, clapping of hands, waving of handkerchiefs, mingled with the loud huzza, and other demonstrations of welcome, became marked and enthusiastic, almost beyond description. There were a few bad spirits in that part of the gallery to the right of the platform, but their dissentient voices, or rather, and the more to their disgrace, - hisses! - were overwhelmed in the reverberating din of acclamation. On reaching the platform, Miss Walker was again and again loudly cheered, a compliment which she acknowledged by inclining repeatedly to the audience. She was dressed in mourning, a habit which it is her calamity to wear for the death of her father, of whom she has not been very many months bereaved. The body of her dress was partially and becomingly low, displaying a very graceful bust, and tending to set off to greater interest a figure and form of interesting proportions. She appeared more than usually wan in countenance, the effect, doubtless, of her anxiety to do justice to her subject, and convey instruction and satisfaction to her audience. She wore a light sort of crepe scarf, or negligee, attached gracefully to, and hanging from her arms, the effect tending to set off her costume, enlivening and contrasting with the black material. A jet necklace, suspending a cross:
‘Which Jews might kiss and Infidels adore’ adorned her bosom, giving a finish to her contour.
The anxiety and excitement of the audience was now wound up to the highest pitch to have the proceedings commence; and, on the motion of Mr. Overton, seconded by Mr. Cuffay, Mr. Balls was unanimously called to the chair...
…It was her first time - he might almost say her first - of addressing a great public assembly, and he therefore hoped they would hear her without interruption. At the conclusion of the address, Miss Walker would answer any questions which might be put to her. He would not longer detain them than to express the very great pleasure he felt in introducing to their notice Miss Mary Ann Walker (loud and continued cheers), amidst which Miss Walker rose and said, she deeply felt the difficulty of her situation on that evening, but feeling, at the same time, most deeply on the subject of her great and lovely country's wrongs, and of her fellow countrymen and women’s sufferings, she had no apology to make for presenting herself before the meeting that evening. It was a bold thing, she admitted, for woman to step out of her retirement; and of course there would be always found persons who would put foul constructions on her motives in order to detain and throw her back (hear hear). And if there were any in that assembly who asked why she came out, to him she would answer, ‘she came there at her country’s call’. If the human misery which afflicted the people of this great country was beyond the power of man to control if it was the ordination of Providence, then would it be man’s duty to submit; but when such was not the case, it was time, she would say, that man aroused himself, and ought to resist its cause. (Hear hear and loud cheers). There never was a time when England possessed so much abundance as at present. (Hear). How was it then, she would ask, that two-thirds of the population were in the face of such a fact, without food? (Hear, hear, hear). How was it that they could not take up a paper, but they were shocked and startled to read some frightful and affecting suicide! (Hear hear). How was it that but a few days ago, a young girl of about fourteen years of age committed suicide! And, be it remembered, she was of a respectable family, but had disobliged her father. How? But because she could not get employment. How was it that the women of England were reduced to make shirts for one penny each and had to find thread out of that! (Indignant cries of 'shame' from all parts of the hall.) How was it that Mr. Comyn, a surgeon, for whose character she entertained the highest respect, had recently called a meeting on behalf of these poor shirt makers? How came he to know of their circumstances and most deplorable condition? Alas! through having been called in to one of them, who, to put an end to her miseries, had taken vitriol. (Deep sensation). That poor creature had worked for sixteen hours a day for sixpence. (Horror, accompanied by cries of ‘shame, shame!’ pervaded and ran through the meeting)....
.... She concluded by assuring the meeting that if she were satisfied that her coming out had the effect of alleviating the trouble of even one poor fellow creature, she would feel herself for life repaid, and would go on in that virtuous course, let the obloquy and the consequences that would attach to her be what they might. (Loud and enthusiastic cheers, amidst which Miss Walker resumed her seat.)
Source 10: Susanna Inge, ‘Address to the Women of England’, Northern Star, 2nd July 1842
Friends and Fellow Countrywomen - That point has now arrived, when man, aroused to a full sense of his misery and degradation, and having succeeded in groping his way from darkness to light, emerges from that ignorance in which superstition and fanaticism have hitherto fast bound his mind, and in exerting his powers of reason in order to obtain for himself those political rights which are now most unjustly denied him.
And that period has also arrived, when woman, awakening to a sense of the social miseries by which she is surrounded, and by which she is degraded and enslaved, by her desolate home and fireless hearth, by her starving children, and by her own hard toil and scanty fare, has taken her stand in the arena of politics, has raised her feeble voice in defence of her rights, and those of her injured country, and has embarked with her light bark upon the ocean of agitation, to assist in steering the shattered bark of liberty to a smooth and sheltered haven.
In consequence of physical superiority, man, while in a state of ignorance, always treats woman as an inferior creature, as one who was formed to be a slave to his pleasures and his well-being; and not as an equal and companion; for while in a state of ignorance, man being insensible to his own mental and intellectual qualities, it very naturally follows that he cannot appreciate those of women, and he therefore regards the kind offers, the fond attentions, and the tender endearments of women, not as things which it is his duty to repay with kindness and protection, but as things which she has a right to give, and he only sought to expect and demand.
As civilisation advances, man gradually becomes more inclined to place woman upon an equality with himself, and though excluded in every thing connected with public life, her condition is considerably improved; still she is regarded in an inferior light, her province being only to make a pudding, prepare a dinner, clean the house, tend to her children, if she have any, and such like. Now these are all necessary things, nay, essential, our comfort and wellbeing in society demand that they should be done.
But are we, because we are women, excluded from the more rational enjoyments of life? If so, why then was woman gifted with a mind to which in point of delicacy of taste, delicacy of feeling, and devoted affection, even proud man himself must bow. Why then, if we are thus gifted, are we to be thus treated? Shall we sit still and tamely submit to a slavery against which our cheeks glow with shame and our hearts burn with indignation? No! perish the thought in the bosom of its ignoble birth. Rouse yourself to a sense of your merits. Assist those who will, nay, who do, place women on an equality with themselves in gaining their rights, and yours will be gained also.
God is our guide in the great and glorious struggle in which we are engaged, and liberty is our birthright, which the Charter alone will give us. Join with us, then, for the Charter of our freedom. Come forward and unite with us in the great struggle for independence and for those rights which are ours by nature, but which a cruel, despotic and tyrannical government have deprived us of.
Do not say you have no business with politics, and that you leave such things for your husbands, fathers and brothers. You have an interest in politics, a deeper interest than you are aware of. If the country is misgoverned, and bad laws instituted, and good laws perverted, it is on you those laws fall heaviest; witness those which regulate the price of food and the monopolies. If the country is well governed, and good laws acted upon, does it not naturally follow that we shall also feel the benefit of them? Besides, if you have husbands, fathers, or brothers who are Chartists, your participating in that which interests them most will please and urge them to further exertions. If you have husbands, fathers, or brothers who are not Chartists, your example will influence them, and induce them to become such.
The principles of the Charter, if carried out, are such as will give man not only his political rights, but will enable him to get a more equitable remuneration for his labour, and that will enable you to live in more comfortable homes - to give your children as much food as they require, and to prevent your leading such wretched lives of poverty and unrequited toil.
Unite with us, therefore, for in union only is strength. Let the Charter be the foundation stone on which to rest all your hopes; and remember, however much the name of Chartist may be now despised, and made the butt for every witless fool to fling his jests at - however much it may now be held up in ignominy and scorn, the time will come (and will come sooner, too, if you will come forward and assist us) when the poor, despised, and persecuted Chartist shall be honoured at the expense of his country.
Member of the Female Charter Association of the City of London,
55 Old Bailey, June 27th.
The number of women involved in Chartism after 1848 declined rapidly. Exceptionally, however, the Sheffield Female Radical Association, founded in 1839, remained in existence until 1851. Its members were approached in that year by Anne Knight, a Quaker activist in the antislavery movement who had, after watching events at the London World Convention of 1840, become committed to women’s suffrage. Anne Knight and the Sheffield women adopted a petition to be submitted to both houses of parliament for the enfranchisement of women, and published an address to the women of England which appeared in the Chartist periodical, the Northern Star. It was seen and welcomed by French women active in the revolution of 1848 in France. In 1852 they founded a National Woman’s Rights Association and attempted to build links with surviving associations elsewhere.
Source 11: Ernest Jones, Notes to the People, London: J. Pavey, 1852, reprinted London, Merlin Press, 1967, Volume II, page 709
[Though we abstain from inserting anything eulogistic of our own writings, we think ourselves authorised to break through the rule in the case of our fair friends; but especially because the voice of woman is not sufficiently heard, and not sufficiently respected, in this country. The greatest test of enlightenment and civilisation among a people is the estimation in which women is held, and her influence in society. Woman has an important mission in this country and our fair friends in Sheffield shew themselves worthy of the task.]
Women’s Right’s Association,
84, Pond Street, Sheffield, Dec. 17, 1851.
Respected Sir, - A recent number of your Notes to the People was brought to our last meeting by one of our members. To consider that ably-written letter on “Raising the Charter from the Pot-House”, and it was unanimously carried that a vote of thanks be given to you, and reply sent to that effect, for your advocacy of woman’s influence; also to solicit your continued support; and in doing so, sir, we beg to state, or rather confirm your statements, that did our brothers but admit our rights to the enjoyment of those political privileges they are striving for, they would find an accession of advocates in the female sex, who would not only raise the Charter from those dens of infamy and vice from which so many of us have to suffer, but would with womanly pride strive to erase that stigma, which by the folly of our brothers has been cast on Chartism, not only by exercising their influence out of doors, but by teaching their children a good sound political education. This, sir, will never be done while men continue to advocate or meet in pot-houses, spending their money, and debarring us from a share in their political freedom.
Signed on behalf of the meeting,
ABIAH HIGGINBOTHAM, Cor. Sec.
Chartism mobilised men and women together as they sought to create a working-class consciousness. Yet although their political objective was universal male suffrage, their struggle has also to be related to the shifts in the world of work. The Chartist stress on the languages of family and domesticity reflected its appeal to artisans and to skilled working men. Such a message was difficult to combine with any recognition of equal political rights for women. Nevertheless for many of the women who took part in Chartism did appear to offer a way forward to a different prospect of society. But only for a few, and those few mainly the better educated, did it provide a base from which the different needs of women in an industrialising society could be explored. Radical movements of the 1850s and 1860s and campaigns for extension of the franchise in those years paid little attention to the possibility of the franchise for women. Nor did they encourage the active formation of women's associations as Chartism had done. The focus had shifted to patterns of organisation rooted in the workplace rather than the community. In spite of the strength and the radicalism of some women within the Owenite and Chartist movements, the first organised feminist activity came from other patterns of dissent.