Sunday, 25 November 2007

Sources for Chartism: Women Chartists 2

Women and the family

Many of women’s activities within Chartism reflected their family roles. When they raised money for the cause, it was often for the families of imprisoned men. Many Chartist children were named for Chartist leaders: for lists see Chartist Ancestors. A tactic in which it was assumed that women had a special advantage was that of exclusive dealing. Some Female Chartist Associations pledged themselves to purchase only from shopkeepers with sympathy for their cause. Women also participated in the Chartist Land Plan, which aimed to ensure a plot of land for as many of its members as possible, appealing to the rural population as well as those in industrial areas. Over 1,800 women were listed as subscribers in their own right, though this was only around 4% of the whole. Many of these may have been acting on behalf of their families, hoping for a small plot of land to help the family economy, and many more would have participated through their husbands. 

Source 4: The Northern Star, 13th March, 1841

Mr Webb: What is the child to be called?

Mrs King: James Feargus O’Connor King.

Mr Webb: Is your husband a Chartist?

Mrs King: I don’t know, but his wife is.

Mr Webb: Are you the child’s mother?

Mrs King: Yes.

Mr Webb: You had better go home and consider it again; for if the person that you are naming your child after and was to commit high treason and get hanged, what a thing it would be.

Mrs King: If that should be the case, I should then consider it an honour to have my child called after him, so that I shall never have him out of my memory so long as the child lives; for I think Feargus O’Connor a great deal honester man than those who are punishing him.

Mr Webb: Well, if you are determined to have it named after him, I must name it; but I never met such an obstinate lady as you before.

Mr Webb then registered the child by the above name.

Women and education

Chartist leaders saw women as above all the educators of their children. The commitment of mothers to the cause was essential for the creation of a changed world. It was their task to shape the character of the next generation. It could also mean of course a greater awareness of the importance of women’s own education, given their part as both mothers and as teachers in the upbringing of the young. Some Chartist men, like William Lovett, might believe that they themselves should act as the instructors of their wives, partly because of a sense that their wives were not their equals either in education or political commitment. Many leading women Chartists took up and developed this stress on education and were especially active in the organisation of Chartist cultural and social life. They founded and taught in Sunday Schools, actively backed Chartist Churches, and helped to develop temperance and teetotal Chartism. Some, like the woman who wrote in Chartist periodicals as Sophia, pointed out the conflict of interests which could arise if women pursued their own educational interests.

Source 5: W. E. Adams, Memoirs of a Social Atom, London: Hutchinson and Co., 1903, pages 163-164

Few men now living, I fancy, had an earlier introduction to Chartism than I had. My people, though there wasn't a man among them, were all Chartists, or at least all interested in the Chartist movement. If they did not keep the ‘sacred month’, it was because they thought the suspension of labour on the part of a few poor washerwomen would have no effect on the policy of the country. But they did for a time abstain from the use of excisable commodities. There were other indications of their tendencies. We had a dog called Rodney. My grandmother disliked that name because she had a curious sort of notion that Admiral Rodney, having been elevated to the peerage, had been hostile to the people. The old lady, too, was careful to explain to me that Cobbet and Cobden were two different persons - that Cobbet was the hero, and that Cobden was just a middle-class advocate. One of the pictures that I longest remember - it stood alongside samplers and stencilled drawings, and not far from a china statuette of George Washington - was a portrait of John Frost. A line at the top of the picture indicated that it belonged to a series called the Portrait Gallery of People’s Friends. Above the head was a laurel wreath, while below was a representation of Mr. Frost appealing to Justice on behalf of a group of ragged and wretched outcasts. I have been familiar with the picture since childhood, and cherish it as a memento of stirring times.

Source 6: Letter from ‘M’, English Chartist Circular, 1, number 25, 1841, page 102

It is a great truth that women hold in their hands the character, and consequently, the destiny of a nation. What they are themselves, such are their children. The influences which surround the first six years of the child determine its character for life. Interest or habit may afterwards induce an individual to act differently, but such actions will not be natural: the first six years has given the bias, and be it for good or evil, it is never eradicated. How culpable then are those who neglect the education of our first teachers. No nation ever appreciated the influence of the mother so much as did the Romans in the days of their greatness. We are told by Quintillian that as “soon as the child was born, he was not given in charge to an hired nurse, to live with her in some pitiful hole, that served her for lodgings, but was brought up in the lap and bosom of the mother who reckoned it among her chief commendations to keep the house, and attend on the children. Some ancient matron was pitched on out of the neighbours whose life and manners rendered her worthy of that office to whose care the children of every family were committed; before whom it was reckoned the most heinous thing in the world to speak an ill word, or do an ill action. Nor had she an eye only to their instruction and the business that they were to follow, but with an equal modesty and gravity, she regulated their divertissements and recreations. Thus Cornelia, Aurelia, and Attica, mothers to the Gracchi, Julius Caesar, and Augustus, are represented to have undertaken the offices of governess, and to have employed themselves in the education of noblemen’s children. The strictness and severity of such an institution had this very good design - that the mind, by being thus preserved in its premature innocence and integrity, and not debauched by ill custom, or ill example, might apply itself with the greatest willingness to liberal arts, and embrace them with all its powers and faculties” that, whether it was particularly inclined either to the profession of arms, or to the understanding of the law, or to the practice of eloquence, it might make that its only business, and greedily drink in the whole knowledge of the favourite study. “Now if the women of England had the knowledge the Roman matrons possessed, they might, if they came forward, win the charter sooner than the men” but have they? Is it not notorious that the wives of the working classes, take them as a body, are with the finest capacities, lost in ignorance. If the great body of the men are not much better in this particular, what is to be expected of the women who have fewer opportunities of improving themselves? What follows from this? Why that before they can come forward to aid us in a great political struggle, they must first be taught what they are to struggle for, and what kind of assistance is expected from them. This brings me to the plan I wish to propose: The wives and daughters of the Chartists must be made to understand their political and social rights; they must be made chartists of if we would have those over whom they have had an influence true and strong in the cause they have adopted. Now what method would be best of imparting to them the requisite instruction? Few, very few, venture to our rooms to hear us lecture, and unless; we have opportunities of instructing them they can never become intelligent converts to our cause. What then is to be done? I propose that the leader, the lecturer, or the council of every town in which there is a chartist branch, to select from the ladies who take an interest in the cause, a certain number who they may deem the most capable of imparting instruction, and after examining these ladies as to their capacity to teach, and knowledge of the principles they solicit them to go in their name to the wives, sisters and daughters, of chartists in given districts, with political pamphlets, chartist tracts and ENGLISH CHARTIST CIRCULARS; these publications to be lent to those who can read, and read and explained to those who cannot read. Their first object must be to gain their affections; next, to rouse their self esteem or sense of moral dignity; and lastly, by arguments, illustrations and catechisms, familiarly to inculcate the principles. I have always observed that women make the best preparatory teachers. This may be one reason why the Methodists and other religious bodies, sanction their enthusiastic female members in visiting the houses of their poorer brethren for the purpose of giving religious instruction. Be this as it may, the idea is excellent, and the practice is crowned with success. What has been turned to so good an account in the religious world may be equally capable in the political, if judiciously managed. I therefore throw the suggestion out to those who have it in their power to test its utility.

Bath, June 23, 1841. M. M - n.

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